I’ve written a few stories about the ketogenic diet, which in recent years has become increasingly popular among adults looking to lose weight, manage type-2 diabetes or turn around their health. Google “keto” and “kids” however, and you’ll find a wealth of bloggers touting the benefits of the low-carb diet and offering up keto dinner recipes and snacks for kids.
There’s no question that kids eat a lot of simple carbohydrates in the form of processed, packaged foods but is this restrictive diet the answer? Is Keto safe for kids?
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet isn’t a new diet—it’s actually been around since the 1920’s—but it has seen a resurgence in recent years especially for people looking to torch calories and lose lbs.
Proponents of the low-carb, moderate protein and high-fat plan say it can help stave off hunger, combat cravings and boost weight loss. The diet calls for 60 to 80 percent of calories be made up of fat and between 20 and 30 grams consist of carbohydrates. Think lots of salad, non-starchy vegetables and minimal amounts of low-glycemic fruit like berries, if any.
The goal of the plan is to put your body into a state of ketosis, whereby you use fat, not carbohydrates for energy. Studies suggest not only can it aid weight loss but it may help those with type-2 diabetes. According to a November 2017 study in the journal Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, people who followed keto for 10 weeks lost weight and improved their hemoglobin A1C—even without exercise.
Additionally, a June 2018 study in the journal Pediatrics suggests a low-carb diet may help kids with type-1 diabetes get better control over their blood glucose levels.
Studies have also shown some promise in regards to the benefits of a keto diet for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, traumatic brain injury (TBI), type-2 diabetes, cancer and chronic headaches. Research suggests the plan may help those who have bipolar disorder and schizophrenia but there isn’t enough data for experts to recommend the plan.
One area where the research is clear however, is for kids who have epileptic seizures. Studies show between 50 and 60 percent of children on keto have a 50 percent or more reduction in their seizures, and 15 percent of kids are seizure-free after 6 months on the diet.
Is Keto Safe For Kids?
You may have considered the keto plan if your child is overweight or you think a low-carb diet is a healthy way to eat. Yet starting a ketogenic diet isn’t so simple or healthy, especially when you consider how kids with seizures must follow the plan.
According to a January 2016 study in the journal Clinical Nutrition Research, kids are admitted into the hospital for 1 to 2 weeks, meet with a dietician, are given nutritional assessments and a meal plan. It’s a gradual process: the plan is adjusted each day and parents are thoroughly educated about the guidelines and the meal plan.
After their stay in the hospital, kids have a follow-up plan and visits at regular intervals for up to 2 years, at which point they are encouraged to resume a normal, healthy diet.
For kids who don’t have seizures, there’s insufficient evidence that points to the benefits of the keto diet but if anything, there are a lot of risks.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend kids get 130 grams of carbohydrates per day—between 45 and 65 of their calories be made up of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide the energy and key nutrients to support their growth and development. These include foods like vegetables—starchy and non-starchy—fruits, whole grains, milk and yogurt.
Foods high in fiber, a type of carbohydrate, help kids feel satiated, keep blood sugar levels steady, prevent constipation and aid in weight control or weight loss. Yet a January 2014 study in the journal Nutrition Research shows 39 percent of kids and teens consume no fiber at all.
Cutting out whole food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies, make kids feel sluggish and irritable and may affect their focus and concentration. The keto diet can cause other nasty side effects like nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhea and lead to elevated levels of triglycerides in the blood and high cholesterol, kidney stones and weak bones, according to the same study in Clinical Nutrition Research.
When you consider the conservative, carefully planned, expert-led approach kids with seizures must follow when embarking on a ketogenic diet and that they eventually move to a more balanced, healthy plan, the ketogenic diet or any low-carb diet doesn’t seem to be a healthy way for kids to eat, even if they’re overweight or obese.
Of course, carbohydrates are also found in processed, packaged food like crackers, cookies, candy, sugar-sweetened beverages and baked goods which don’t have fiber or contain the nutrition kids need. Indeed, these are not the type of carbohydrates kids should be eating.
If you are interested in the keto diet for your kids however, do your homework and speak with a pediatric nutritionist who can help devise a healthy meal plan that provides all of the nutrition they need and help to monitor them for adverse side effects.