It seems everywhere you look there's a new food craze or trendy diet to take for a spin, but while many of these eating options are simply short-term fads, there are definitely some evidence-based diets that may improve people's overall health. Many adults meticulously follow them and swear by the benefits, from weight loss to improved symptoms of nagging health problems. But what about when you throw kids into the mix? Choosing to place your child on a selective or restrictive diet may not be appropriate, and when it does happen, it needs to be carefully planned out and monitored to ensure adequate nutritional intake for proper growth and development. Here's what you need to know about some common diets of today.
Going gluten free
Gluten is a protein that's found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. It's what provides the elastic texture of dough and makes baked foods airy and light. It's also used as a stabilising agent in all kinds of processed foods.
The pros - People who are diagnosed with coeliac disease (an auto-immune condition that involves small-bowel damage) require a gluten-free diet to manage their condition. For these adults and children, even a minimal intake of gluten can cause chronic systemic inflammation and poor absorption of nutrients, resulting in possible anaemia, malnutrition and osteoporosis. Strictly following a gluten-free diet may also discourage the intake of many processed foods such as muffins, pies and crumbed meats, however a general healthy diet need not include these foods either.
The cons - Many people believe that following a gluten-free diet is a healthier option, when in fact many gluten-free products contain extra sugars and additives to deliver that light, airy texture and improved taste. Always check the ingredient lists to see exactly what's in the foods you're providing your little one, or alternatively choose fresh, whole foods that don't require labelling. Another potential con of avoiding gluten in the absence of coeliac disease is that wheat, rye, barley and oats are valuable sources of fibre, which helps to keep little digestive systems regular, and B-group vitamins, which are essential for unlocking the energy from food and for proper cognitive function.
The verdict - Most healthy adults and children don't need to eliminate gluten-containing foods from their diets, and unnecessary restriction may see your little one missing out on valuable nutrients. Rather than avoiding gluten, you may be better off helping your child avoid over-processed foods in place of fibre-rich wholegrains, such as oats. If your tot has had a medical diagnosis and needs to eat gluten-free diet, choose healthy, naturally gluten-free alternatives such as quinoa, buckwheat, rice, corn and lentils.
Vegetarian and vegan diets
There are many types of vegetarian-based diets - for example, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes dairy foods and eggs, which provide valuable sources of protein, whereas a vegan diet includes only foods of plant origin and excludes all animal products, including honey. A carefully planned, plant-based diet can be completely balanced, but a growing child with high nutritional requirements needs careful menu planning and monitoring to ensure an adequate nutritional intake.
The pros - Vegetarian and vegan diets are generally high in dietary fibre, due to increased intakes of fruit, vegetables and plant-based proteins such as legumes and lentils. These help maintain healthy digestion, and the diets also encourage an intake of predominantly unsaturated fats from foods such as nuts and avocado, in place of saturated animal fat. Some studies have suggested that vegetarians generally have a lower risk of being overweight or suffering from chronic problems such as obesity and heart disease.
The cons - Iron and zinc are two absolutely essential minerals for proper growth and cognitive function, and for maintaining healthy blood cells and strong immunity. The most convenient and bioavailable sources of both of these nutrients are animal products such as red meat. For vegetarians, there are smaller amounts of iron and zinc to be found in foods such as eggs, legumes, fortified breakfast cereals and nuts. However these foods need to be combined with foods rich in vitamin C to enhance their iron absorption. Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy cells and DNA, and is only found in foods of animal origin such as dairy, eggs, meat, chicken and fish. Medically supervised supplementation is usually required in those eating plant-only diets. In vegan diets, calcium intake may be restricted due to the avoidance of dairy products, with adequate intake essential for littlies' strong bones and teeth.
The verdict - A well-balanced vegetarian diet is a healthy option for many adults and children and in fact, for meat eaters, a few vegetarian meals each week may help keep the whole family in good health. If you choose a more restrictive vegetarian or vegan diet for your child, though, you need to ensure that you consult with your GP or an accredited practising dietitian who specialises in children's diets, to obtain the correct guidance on food sources of nutrients or additional supplements for optimal health and growth.
Eating the Paleo way
The 'Paleolithic diet' has been another diet to skyrocket in popularity in recent years, and is based on the idea of eating as our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. A true Paleo diet was based primarily on meat, insects, vegetables, fruit, nuts and roots, with variations depending on season and availability, with the modern-day approach also avoiding the processed foods, dairy, refined sugars, vegetable oils and grains that are now available. What can be confusing to some is the recent emergence of Paleo cafes that sell Paleo coffee, Paleo brownies and Paleo protein powders - all of which were definitely not available some 2.5 million years ago, and which can contain just as much sugar as regular processed foods.
The pros - The philosophy behind a Paleo diet is a positive one, as it recommends avoiding processed foods and refined sugars in favour of lean protein and seafood, as well as lots of fresh vegetables and fruit. It also encourages eating seasonally, which is great because not only can this save money, but fresh seasonal foods tend to taste better.
The cons - A true Paleo diet eliminates dairy foods, which provide a readily absorbable and convenient form of calcium, as well as protein and B12. Avoiding dairy without suitable alternatives can put children at a risk of weak bones and teeth. Meanwhile, the grains that are avoided provide kids with a valuable source of fibre for healthy digestion and B-group vitamins for energy production and brain function. Wholegrains are also a source of low-GI carbohydrates, which provide tots with the long-lasting energy they require to grow and learn.
The verdict - The principles of the Paleo diet are good - we can all benefit from consuming fewer processed foods in place of more fresh produce - but avoiding wholegrains and dairy without considering the nutritional implications may leave your child's diet falling short. Do the research before implementing any diet for your child that restricts whole food groups.
A final word
There are pros and cons to all diets, but any approach to eating that restricts whole food groups needs to be carefully considered and researched before being implemented. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating a wide variety of foods from all five food groups. These guidelines were developed based on scientific evidence and provide advice on the amounts and kinds of foods required for optimal health and wellbeing - you can find more on them at www.eatforhealth.gov.au, or see your local accredited practising dietitian for more information and menu planning.