Can restricting your child's diet be bad for health?

The clean eating movement

Over the past ten years, the term ’clean eating’ has been used by some celebrities and diet guru’s to promote advice about what they believe is the correct way to eat. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating only “whole” or “unprocessed” foods.

Some versions of ‘clean eating’ have been vegan, while others promote eating various meats and fish. This powerful idea has led many of its followers to cut out gluten, sugar, oil, grains, and dairy foods without any substantial nutritional reason for doing so. Over time ‘clean eating’ has become a way of life where the more food intake is restricted, the better and more virtuous you can consider yourself to be.

The danger with this way of eating is that nutrients vital for health, growth and normal development can become dangerously deficient and lead to malnutrition.

The problem for children

The popularity of ‘clean eating’ and restrictive dieting among young women has caused concern among health professionals because it has begun to filter down to children. In Italy, a one year old raised as a strict vegan was taken away from his parents after he was found to have rickets.

Other restrictive diets

There are several healthy eating trends which involve cutting out foods, or food components, from the diet for example, gluten free, dairy free, low carbohydrate, vegan, paleo and vegetarian.

Why are parents restricting their children’s’ diet?

Many parents have unfounded fears about food allergies and intolerances and go on to self-diagnose problems without confirming their suspicions with a qualified health professional. The British Nutrition Foundation says that 20 per cent of children are on some sort of restrictive diet yet only 3 – 6 per cent have a diagnosed medical condition.

What are the dangers of overly restrictive diets?

Whole groups of food may be cut out of a child’s diet without making up for the essential nutrients which are lost. For example, cows’ milk is a major source of calcium for children. If it is excluded from the diet, without an appropriate alternative, children are at greater risk of calcium deficiency which can have long term effects on bone health.

Children who exclude meat fish and poultry from their diet risk becoming deficient in the following nutrients: iron, zinc, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and protein.

Children who eat no animal products are also at risk of being deficient in vitamin A and B12.

Children (particularly under three’s) and adults have very different nutritional needs. The brains, bones and muscles of children are developing very rapidly and are less tolerant of nutrient deficiencies than adults.

Getting the balance right

There is a fine line between healthy eating and overeating in childhood, particularly with current high levels of childhood obesity in the UK. The best way to ensure a child is well fed and receives all the nutrients required for healthy growth and development is to ensure regular meals are provided containing all the major five food groups.

The five major food groups

  1. Fruit and vegetables including fresh, dried and canned
  2. Potatoes, bread, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates
  3. Dairy including cheese, milk and their alternatives like Oat Milk
  4. Beans, pulses, nuts, fish, meat and other high protein foods
  5. Oils and spreads

As always getting your children to eat a balanced diet needs a sound knowledge of nutritional principles and eating as wide a range of good quality food as possible including all the major food groups unless there is a very good reason for doing so.

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