Diet Trends: OK for Social Media Posts But Not for A Baby’s Diet

“Paleo” and “gluten-free” have become household names over the past few years. But have you heard about the Paleo diet for your baby? As trendy eating styles become increasingly popular, the next step for some parents is to put their baby on the same diet plan. However, feeding a baby or toddler according to some trendy diets can be very dangerous.

Babies have different nutrient needs than adults because they are growing rapidly. Their growth and development increase the need of certain key nutrients, including protein, vitamin D and calcium. Many trendy diets tend to be missing at least one key nutrient and/or does not provide enough of the nutrient to meet a baby’s requirement.

For the first six months of life, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for an infant’s nutrient needs to be met through exclusive breastfeeding (or iron-fortified infant formula, if breastfeeding is not possible). After that, introducing baby-friendly complementary foods, in addition to breastfeeding until the newborn is one-year-old, is recommended to meet the increased nutrient needs.

Some eating styles, such as veganism have a “health halo.” But having your baby or toddler follow such a strict diet regimen could lead to nutrient deficiencies.

Vegan Diets

Most adult vegans can learn to supplement their diet with essential nutrients that are generally not provided by a vegan eating style, such as vitamin B12. Adults are also able to meet nutrient requirements by choosing a variety of different food sources, such meeting protein needs through complementary proteins.

There are two types of proteins: complete and incomplete. Complete proteins provide all nine essential amino acids in amounts relative to our need.  Incomplete proteins are missing one or more essential amino acids. Since most complete proteins come from animal sources (with the exception of soy, which is a complete plant protein), vegans can match different plant-based proteins so they add up to a complete protein.

However, infants have the greatest protein requirement in relation to their size to support growth and development. Due to their small stomachs, babies are not able to consume enough of an incomplete protein source to meet their needs. Plus, babies have a more limited range of food sources (soft foods, finger-foods) than adults because they are still developing and learning how to eat. This is why it is recommended for babies to meet their protein needs from mainly complete protein sources.

While it’s true that plant-based diets can be healthy and balanced, adhering to a strict 100 percent vegan diet can lead to unintended nutrient deficiencies if the diet is not painstakingly planned to meet nutrient needs. Babies that are fed vegan diets can even end up with severe nutrient deficiencies, such as kwashiorkor (protein deficiency).

Gluten-Free

Gluten-free diets have been hot in the food and nutrition world for years. However, gluten-free diets are only recommended for people with celiac disease, which is a very small percentage of the general population. In the past, those with celiac disease were not able to eat most packaged foods due to the product containing wheat and/or cross-contamination with wheat. Now, there are many gluten-free options available, which has helped the gluten-free diet become more mainstream.

Similar to other trendy diets, gluten-free diets tend to be missing key nutrients. Gluten-free products are not always fortified with the required nutrients from the grain-enrichment program, such as the B vitamins and iron. Plus, the fiber content of gluten-free products tends to be lower than the comparable whole-wheat product. Feeding babies a gluten-free diet can leave these essential nutrients out of the picture.

Paleo

The Paleo diet is based on eating only foods our hunter/gatherer ancestors supposedly would have eaten. This includes eating grass-fed meat, fish/seafood, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts/seeds, and healthful oils (olive oil, walnut, flaxseed, etc.). These are all nutrient-packed foods, so what’s the catch?

The Paleo diet excludes cereal grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods, refined vegetable oils and salt. This means that it is missing many foods that provide key nutrients, such as fiber from cereal grains and calcium from dairy products. Experts have expressed concern over feeding babies a Paleo diet because of the exclusion of carbohydrates and the addition of extremely high amounts of protein. This imbalance of macronutrients can interfere a newborn’s growth and development.

Encouraging your little one to adhere to a restrictive eating plan, like the paleo diet, could also have long-term psychological effects. Growing up with certain foods labeled “off-limits” creates restrictions, which could cause a child to fall short of certain nutrient requirements or even to feed more cravings for the “off limits” foods. This may lead to an unhealthy cycle of overindulging and unhealthy restriction.  In a healthy eating pattern, there’s always room for the occasional treat.

Unless your doctor diagnoses your baby with a particular condition that requires a special diet, it’s best to stick to expert-approved best practices. Introduce your baby to the usual baby friendly foods and let them explore different tastes and textures as they are ready. Letting your baby eat a variety of foods from different food sources (animal and plant) enables them to better meet their high nutrient needs for growth and development while priming their taste buds to accept a variety of nutritious foods. If you have questions about your baby’s nutrient needs, a healthcare professional can help make sure they are off to a healthy start.  

This blog post was written by Debbie Fetter and Liz Sanders, RD, MPH, IFIC's director of research and partnerships. 

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