The Paleo diet is said to be the ‘healthiest’ and ‘oldest’ way to live, and many participants have said it is life changing. People who live the Paleo way attribute it to their healthier and happier lives. While no one is condemning this diet and lifestyle, people are questioning whether it is the safest diet for children, particularly babies. The New Zealand Ministry of Health has voiced its concerns, while many parents attribute it to their child’s good health. All that is left to ask is whether parents are going too far by putting their children on the Paleo diet or whether they’re simply putting their child’s health and wellbeing first.
Masterchef judge Pete Evans catches the eye, with his charming smile and his only-too-happy-to-help attitude. Being a chef, Evans is looked up to when it comes to anything food related, particularly since he became a devotee of the Paleo lifestyle. For Evans, this journey has not been without its turmoil, particularly after revelations about a Paleo recipe for baby formula that was deemed unsafe and harmful for children. Dietitians said the formula in question was harmful because it contained 10 times the maximum ‘safe’ daily intake of vitamin A for babies. It was also said to include risky ingredients that are not recommended for babies under 12 months because of the risk of infection, such as, runny eggs, honey and raw liver. This is a different extreme of the Paleo lifestyle, but it all comes back to the central question that many parents find themselves asking – is it really safe to raise my child the Paleo way?
Paleo: What is it?
We all know the Paleo diet is based around the idea of eating like a caveman – mainly eating foods such as meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds – and staying clear of anything our Neanderthal ancestors would not have found, killed or caught. This diet, which is more of a lifestyle, bans dairy, whole grains and legumes and highly processed food.
No one could say the lifestyle is based on bad principles; eating more whole foods and less processed foods is undeniably better for your body. So, what is the problem with the Paleo diet for children you may wonder.
Safe or not: What do the professionals say?
The publishing of a cookbook that promoted a Paleo diet for babies and toddles and included a recipe for homemade infant formula caught the attention of the New Zealand Ministry of Health. This, along with the general increased uptake of the Paleo diet, prompted the Ministry of Health to share its views. In its opinion, the Paleo style diet “is not suitable for babies, toddlers and children”.
Principal Advisor of Public Health at the Ministry, Dr Harriette Carr, says there is insufficient evidence to recommend a Paleo diet for children and adults. “A Paleo diet has been studied in very few people and not over the long term. In contrast, there is an overwhelming amount of research which supports health benefits from the inclusion of whole-grains, legumes and dairy products in the diet. The Ministry recently published new Eating and Activity Guidelines for adults. The guidelines are based on international evidence and systematic reviews and recommend whole grains, legumes and dairy products as part of a healthy diet pattern.” Carr does not dismiss that the Paleo diet does have some “healthy features”, such as its emphasis on fruit and vegetable consumption and eating whole, locally sourced fresh foods rather than highly processed options. However, she says, it excludes whole food groups that have been shown to be part of healthy eating patterns.
“Children, and particularly babies, have small stomachs and a limited capacity to eat. They need to be able to consume a variety of foods that contain carbohydrates, protein, fats and other essential nutrients in order to meet their requirements for growth and development,” she says.
“One particular concern with the Paleo diet is that it excludes dairy products. Milk and milk products are commonly consumed and are a major source of calcium in the diets of New Zealand children. While it is possible to get calcium from non-dairy foods, this requires nutrition knowledge and careful diet planning to ensure that calcium requirements are met.”