Last week, our family’s story was featured on Primal Palate, the web site of cookbook authors Bill Staley and Hayley Mason, and a leading paleo recipe and lifestyle blog. The story featured our journey changing our diet to a paleo/primal-style diet, free of grains and refined sugars, to help our son with ADHD and other behavioral problems. Feedback has been incredible and most people are happy to read about parents helping their child through diet… but some naysayers didn’t have such glowing reviews, with one reader saying my “extreme parenting” gave paleo a bad name. Wait… what?
This I don’t understand. Yes, a paleo (or gaps, or primal) diet is extreme to a lot of people, particularly those coming from a standard American diet. But, I am willing to do lots of extreme things for my health and that of my family. So, this begs the question, is the paleo diet healthy for kids? Can kids get all the nutrition they need from a paleo diet, free of grains, dairy and refined sugars? Let’s take a look at the science.
Do Kids Need Grains?
I was asked early into our grain-free journey if my kids were missing out on nutrition because they weren’t eating grains. My answer was a redundant no! But, I want to be sure they are nourished, so let’s look at the facts:
Grains contain a little protein, and an array of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, and copper, as well as fiber. However, one serving of grains alone won’t get you very far in the nutritional department. You’d have to eat several servings several times a day to make a nutritional impact. (You can see a chart of the nutritional content of various grains here.) So, why wouldn’t you just eat lots of grains, then, to get all these great benefits? There are a number of reasons. First of all, many folks are allergic to grains, especially those containing gluten like wheat, barly, rye and some (contaminated) oats. Others find they just don’t digest them well and experience extreme bloating after consuming them (this was the case for me and the bloating ceased almost instantly when I stopped eating grains).
There is another problematic aspect to eating grains: grains contain anti-nutrients that actually combine together with the nutrients from your other food, preventing your body from absorbing them. As this study reports: “Although government-supported dietary guidelines in Europe and the U.S.A advise individuals to eat adequate amounts of (whole) grain products per day, cereal grains contain ‘anti-nutrients,’ such as wheat gluten and wheat lectin, that in humans can elicit dysfunction and disease.” It goes on to read that findings show “…the consumption of wheat, but also other cereal grains, can contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases by increasing intestinal permeability and initiating a pro-inflammatory immune response.”
What this means is that when the gut experiences difficulty digesting and breaking down grains, “intestinal permeability” occurs: i.e. leaky gut, the syndrome in which holes begin to erode the gut walls and food proteins begin to leak through the gut into the blood stream, causing damage to organs in the body (this is what causes autoimmune diseases).
We can’t assume that all children will have trouble digesting grains, however, grains do require a strong gut health for digestibility, and strong gut health is not common in a society riddled with C-sections, formula feeding, and antibiotic usage. Even my children who were born at home and have never received medications or interventions of any kind do not tolerate grains well.
How Can We Meet Nutritional Needs?
If children don’t eat grains, then, how can we meet their nutritional needs? Lots of ways! Fiber is easy, and can be obtained by eating lots of veggies and some fruit. But what about the vitamins and minerals? Veggies are an excellent source of these nutrients as well! Broccoli, leafy greens like dino kale (the name of which, by the way, makes it instantly cooler), asparagus, sweet potatoes, onions, green beans… the list goes on and on. Feed your kids vegetables at every meal and they will get used to eating them!
Meat and eggs are also excellent sources of nutrition, and provide a much larger amount of nutrients per serving than grains. The point is, there is not a nutrient found in grains that cannot be obtained from a better, more easily assimilated source. Because of the problematic components of grains, even the nutrients they offer are difficult for our bodies to use. However, if you feel your child needs grains, consider an ancient, gluten-free grain like quinoa, and take care to soak overnight before cooking. If you do include grains in your child’s diet, make sure it is just a small part, as a starchy side along with a generous serving of veggies and protein.
Note: many whole grain products are fortified with synthetic vitamins, particularly folic acid. The food fortification mandate of 1998 requires that foods have added folic acid because of the false assumption that this would prevent birth and fertility defects. However, this is a synthetic form of folate that many people’s bodies cannot convert to a bioavailable form, so the folic acid becomes toxic in the body and builds up, rather than being assimilated. (Read more here.) Instead of fortified breads and cereals, consider feeding your child an abundance of foods containing folate: broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, collard greens… again, vegetables are your friend and can give your child what his body needs! And for adventurous eaters, liver, particularly calf and chicken livers, are also an excellent source of folate! We take dehydrated liver capsules rather than eating liver frequently to get the same effect.
What About Dairy?
A typical paleo diet is also free of dairy. Our family, however, chooses to drink fresh, raw (A2) milk and eat organic cultured dairy like cheese and sour cream from grassfed, pastured cows. We put butter on everything! We have done several trials without milk and just haven’t found that it makes any difference for us. My body really craves the nutrition found in raw milk, especially when I’m pregnant or breastfeeding. (This way of eating, which includes these high quality forms of dairy, is known as primal, but it often falls under the broader category of paleo.)
But, what about kids who don’t tolerate dairy? One of my sons actually had a dairy allergy that caused him to have eczema and digestive issues. I started him on a high-quality probiotic, however, and his allergy cleared right up! (Read more about my suggested probiotic here.) My belief is that raw dairy is not only good for growing kids, but it is medicinal! It has such amazing nutrition that is not easily obtained or assimilated from other foods. Still, let’s take a look at some foods that are rich in those same nutrients: green veggies like collard greens, broccoli and bok choy are good sources of calcium; potassium is found in bananas and potatoes; and vitamins A and D are present in organ meats and cod liver oil. So, as you can see, your child can have a well-rounded diet without milk, but I personally think raw milk has a lot to offer growing children. If your child suffers from a dairy allergy, consider a few things you can try:
- Raw milk. If your child has shown reactions to pasteurized milk, and this is all you’ve tried, you may find he tolerates raw milk just fine. Because the digestive enzymes are present in raw milk (the absence of enzymes is how producers test milk to be certain it has been properly pasteurized), it is more easily digested, and the nutrients are more easily assimilated by the body, vs pasteurized milk, which has been boiled down to be nothing more than dirty water with added synthetic vitamins. (Note: look for raw milk from healthy cows that are out on pasture, eating grass.)
- Use a high quality probiotic to repair gut flora.
- Introduce homemade, raw milk kefir, very slowly, a drop at a time, first thing in the morning, increasing by a drop a day, to see how your child reacts. Kefir is a powerful source of probiotics and can help change the gut climate fairly quickly.
- Think about doing an intensive healing diet like the GAPS diet, which heals and seals the gut walls and can eliminate food allergies.
Kids Really Can Eat Paleo!
So, before you assume that a paleo diet can’t meet the nutritional needs of children, remember that a well-balanced diet with a variety of vegetables, as well as muscle and organ meats, eggs, and raw and cultured dairy is an excellent way to feed kids! You aren’t denying children by feeding them a paleo or primal diet, you are providing them with amazing nutrition that will set their bodies up for a lifetime of health, “extreme” parenting be darned!