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Are low-carb diets unhealthy for kids?

Are low-carb diets unhealthy for kids? Yes, say some experts, but that shouldn't mean more cooking if you're on these popular plans.
/ Source: WebMD

Even if you're among the 10 million Americans currently on a low-carbohydrate diet, your children shouldn't be -- even if they are overweight. Experts tell WebMD that diets such as Atkins and South Beach can be unhealthy for growing kids, including those with growing waistlines.

"Low-carb diets are not a good choice for kids because children are nutritionally different than adults, and these diets are restrictive in many of the nutrients they need," says Joan Carter, RD, of the USDA-funded Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. "Growing children need more calcium than adults, and their tissues need vitamins and minerals that come from fruits, vegetables, and grains. With diets that restrict these and other important nutrients, it shortchanges kids in a way that can affect their growth and development."

Low-carb diets can affect thinking
Besides robbing the body of key nutrients, low-carb eating plans can also impact thinking ability, explains Bruce Rengers, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University. When a body is robbed of carbohydrates, the body draws its energy from ketones, a byproduct that results from breaking down body fat.

This process explains some of dramatic weight loss that can be achieved with eating plans that restrict carbohydrate intake. "But ketones have a dulling effect on the brain," he tells WebMD. "Low-carb diets work by fooling the body to think that it's starving."

"Essentially, this quasi-starvation mode is not good for alertness, and it's certainly not good for children," adds Carter. "While these diets do work in the short-term for adults and can result in weight loss, there are better ways for children to lose weight."

How? Obviously, it's a good idea to limit their intake of "bad" carbohydrates such as overly processed snack foods, soda, and other high-calorie, low-nutrient fare. Beyond that, there's no need to prepare separate meals for the young'uns -- even if you're following a low-carb eating plan.

Put nutrition first
"Just make sure your children get the nutrients they need," she tells WebMD. "Make sure they drink milk with their dinner, even if you shouldn't have dairy with these eating plans. If you're having a hamburger without the bun, make sure they have theirs with lettuce and tomato. By all means, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are important for children -- even if you're restricting them in your own diet."

Low-carb regiments such as the Atkins and South Beach diets restrict the intake of certain fruits, vegetables, and grains. But Dr. Stephen Sondike, a spokesman for Atkins Nutritionals and director of a pediatric obesity program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, maintains that the low-carb approach is safe and effective for children who need to lose weight.

He points to research he conducted, published last March in the Journal of Pediatrics, comparing the Atkins approach against a low-fat diet in teenagers for 12 weeks. "We found kids on the Atkins approach lost twice as much as weight as those on a low-fat diet," he says.

"We do support the use of fruits and vegetables," Sondike tells WebMD. "We just believe the American diet is much too high in high-glycemic carbohydrates. We feel by lowering the amounts of those foods in meal plans, that's going to make everyone healthier."

But among the high-glycemic foods encouraged to be eaten sparingly in the Atkins plan -- if at all -- are oranges, bananas, potatoes, and other foods considered to be a good source of nutrition by other experts. High-glycemic foods raise blood glucose level quickly, which can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Meanwhile, potato and citrus growers have recently launched marketing campaigns to tout the nutritional benefits of their foods, in part because sales have dwindled because of the low-carbohydrate craze. Pasta manufacturers are expected to follow suit.

Some of these foods are frequently consumed by endurance athletes such as marathon runners to improve their performance.

"Carbohydrate loading is used by endurance athletes for a good reason -- it gives their bodies an extra storage of fuel so their performance increases dramatically," says Jim Bell, president of the International Fitness Professionals Association and a member of Florida's state-run obesity task force. "In full-grown adults, we know that restricting carbohydrates cuts down on athletic performance and endurance."

While most children don't run marathons -- especially those who are overweight -- Bell says he's concerned that low-carb diets can hurt their efforts to lose weight the old-fashioned way, with exercise.

"Carbohydrates provide energy, and without this energy, they probably can't exercise as well," he tells WebMD. "What's worse, in children going through a development process, there can be permanent inhibition in their reaching full genetic potential when an entire group of macronutrients are eliminated from the diet. It doesn't matter if it is fat, protein, or carbohydrates, it's just not healthy."