Low carb high fat (LCHF) diets are trending. As with all diets, popularity waxes and wanes, with experts opining for and against their safety. Adults, when they choose a diet, must educate themselves and take these warnings into account before plunging in. Babies and children, on the other hand, eat what adults feed them. Which begs the question: is it safe for babies to eat a low carb high fat diet?
For those who see the low carb high fat diet as a lifestyle, the answer is an unequivocal yes. They say that carbohydrates are, as a body, a nonessential nutrient—that all carbohydrates turn into glucose in the body, and that while the brain needs glucose for energy, the body manufactures all the glucose one needs in a process called gluconeogenesis, a process independent of diet. And anyway, what could be bad about giving babies fewer sweets?
Especially since we’re not talking about a no-carbohydrate diet (can you spell c-o-n-s-t-i-p-a-t-i-o-n?) but a low carbohydrate diet. Vegetables that are low in carbohydrates are full of vitamins, minerals, and yes, fiber. No one is against a nice dish of oven-roasted fennel and cauliflower, for instance, or a carpaccio of kohlrabi slices drizzled with a smooth Dijon vinaigrette and sprinkled with some pink Himalayan salt.
But is it reasonable to feed a baby no whole grains, no Cheerios for little hands to grasp, no crusts of bread to chew on? No convenient beginners’ rice cereal, thought to be so easy to digest, so hypoallergenic? Professor Timothy Noakes, thinks so.
Noakes, the author of The Real Meal Revolution, was willing to stake his reputation on the concept. An emeritus professor in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, Noakes was forced to defend the idea that a low carb high fat diet is healthy for babies and children. He was found not guilty. Because there is no proof that a low carb high fat diet is dangerous. Not dangerous for babies. Not dangerous for anyone.
— Tammy Petersen (@TammyPetersen87) April 21, 2017
But not everyone agrees with Noakes. Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD at the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website tells readers that limiting carbohydrates puts children at risk for developing deficiencies later in life and that whole grains, taking longer to digest, make one feel full longer, which, she claims, prevents hunger. An article in the Daily Mail tells readers that carbohydrates are essential to brain function without mention of the diet-independent biological truth of gluconeogenesis, and like Ward, advises whole grains like brown rice be made part of a healthy children’s diet.
Laurie Endicott Thomas, MA, ELS, author of Where Do Gorillas Get Their Protein? What We Really Know About Diet and Health and Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2, says that the keto diet (a type of low carb high fat diet) is “generally bad for a child’s health and well-being. Children hate the diet because it is limited and ‘yucky.’ It can also stunt their growth and cause some bad side-effects, such as pancreatitis.”
Laurie Thomas sees only a limited use for the ketogenic diet, “The ketogenic diet is useful in cases of severe epilepsy. By feeding an epileptic child a ketogenic diet, you can get control of some seizures that would otherwise be uncontrollable by medication. The ketogenic diet is particularly useful in cases of De Vivo disease, which results from a genetic defect in the protein that is supposed to transport glucose from the bloodstream into the brain. Since the brain is deprived of glucose, children with De Vivo disease are born with a very small brain. Since their brain is starved of energy, they are prone to seizures. Ketosis is beneficial in those cases because it provides an alternative fuel source to the brain.”
Low Carb High Fat: Gorillas Versus Humans
At Thomas’ aforementioned website, she speaks of the similarity between gorillas and human beings and how diet impacts on the two species. “When I was in sixth grade, my teachers taught me about the Four Food Groups. They told me that I had to eat two servings of meat and three servings of dairy products every day. Otherwise, my growth would be stunted. I wouldn’t be able to grow normal hair or fingernails. Then I went to the zoo, where I saw that the gorillas, which are bigger and stronger and hairier than I would ever be, were eating nothing but salad. In other words, they are practically vegan, yet they were clearly getting enough nutrition. How could that be?
“Gorillas have nearly the same DNA as human beings, which means that our body chemistry and theirs is almost exactly alike. Gorillas also have almost the same digestive system that we have. So how can gorillas grow up to be so big and strong without eating any meat (other than a few termites), any dairy products, any eggs, or any fish?”
The answer, according to keto diet aficionado and scholar Chanah Shapira Stillman, is not in the similarities between humans and gorillas, but in their differences. Stillman, citing Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb, explains, “Human babies are actually all premature from a developmental standpoint. Because of cranial size and pelvic dimensions, they are born before they have achieved a level of development parallel to anthropoid apes at full term, which would be, as I recall, at about 18 months. The head is proportionally very large; a characteristic all humans retain. It’s called neotony.
“For human babies to be born at full term you would need ginormous (!) hips. Walking would be dicey with legs too far apart!
“Since human babies are so large-brained, adequate maternal diet during pregnancy would necessarily include sufficient fats, and subsequently children’s rapid brain development must include a similar enriched diet.”
But it’s not just the difference between human babies and gorillas but the differences between humans in general and gorillas. Stillman points to Dr. Loren Cordain, the founder of the paleo diet movement, regarding that difference. Cordain’s work, says Stillman, is key to understanding how nutritional requirements are essential to the expanded brain size of humans, which in turn means that humans need more fats. Not something you’re going to get on a mostly vegetarian diet.
Low Carb High Fat: Expensive Tissue Hypothesis
“It’s all interlinked. Apes have lots of gut which we traded for more brain power. Comes down to the cost of running the physical plant. Look how ‘dumb, slow, and tasty’ cows are. They have 4 stomachs to convert their semi-vegan diet into one large mammal body.”
Thomas disagrees, citing experiments from the 1920’s regarding the beneficial effects of the LCHF diet for children with epilepsy, “The keto diet is a good way to control seizures in children with severe, drug-resistant epilepsy. It is bad for everyone else,” says Thomas.
Jessica Haggard would beg to differ, having raised two children on a low carb high fat diet. Haggard works from home as an entrepreneur alongside her husband, promoting the keto lifestyle for Families at Primal Edge Health. The homeschooling mom has written two cookbooks of family-friendly LCHF recipes incorporating unprocessed, whole foods. She coaches clients and families who want to adopt the keto lifestyle. While Haggard doesn’t impose the strict keto regiment on her children (no one’s counting macros, i.e. eating specific daily percentages of protein, fat, and carbs), she does expose her children to a wide variety of high fat foods.
Haggard remained low-carb throughout both pregnancies, and breastfed her children while maintaining a ketogenic diet. Starting her kids on a ketogenic diet, however, was not an automatic thought. “It is actually because of our first child that we got into higher fat diets. She had dental caries. This gave us a big push to reexamine our diet.”
Haggard and her husband are young American expats living in Ecuador. “I am not an expert, just a mom,” says Jessica with a smile. “I have the practical side—the implementation and the meal planning strategies. I have the success story of seeing my children thrive. I was part of a “birthing wave” with my second and I see a huge difference in the children with different diets. Granted, there are many variations that set families apart but I always wonder at the influence of diet. In fact, a few of the families I coach are in the process of eliminating grains and starches and remark on the improvement of their children (better mood, less gas/discomfort).”
Was it difficult to put her children on such a radically different diet?
“It was not easy per se, to go against the established way of eating. But for my family, our path was clear cut. In search of a dietary intervention to help my, at the time, one-and-a-half-year-old with dental cavities, we were exposed to the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), fat soluble vitamins and—get ready for this—organ meats!
Low Carb High Fat: Making The Switch
“So we made the switch, all of us as a family. No more sugar, grains, or legumes, plus lots more butter, raw dairy cream, and fish. This lead us to keto, where my husband and I have been eating for the last 4 years or so. I had a ‘keto-ish’ pregnancy and now my baby chooses fatty fish, avocado, butter—all the classic healthy fatty foods. He loves my beef heart meatballs. These are his choices.
“I keep fresh, local, seasonal fruit around and occasionally cook plantains, parsnips, carrots and beets but they—with the exception of newly discovered parsnips—don’t get enjoyed the same way as burgers, my grain-free flatbreads, or low-carb coconut flour pancakes. My oldest also eats lots of honey.”
Asked if she met much resistance from pediatricians, Jessica says, “I’ve followed a very unconventional path with bringing my children into the world. It’s been very intimate. The short story is that they were both born at home, ‘unattended,’ that is without any certified medical attendees. These were 100 percent natural births, no epidurals, no vaccines.* They have been extremely healthy all their lives and I have never had a reason to visit a pediatrician.
“I live in Ecuador (born and raised in California) so it’s easier here than in the US to avoid standard medical care. On this path of independence, there have been challenging moments of doubt, but through faith and a serious approach to self-education my husband and I have made the choices that we think are most optimal for our family.
Low Carb High Fat: Healthy Carbs
“I am very grateful for this way of eating. I don’t have a label for it, you could call it keto plus healthy carbs. It has set my children up with a savory palate and they know how to portion control, choose healthy options and eat to satiety.”
The bottom line about babies and the LCHF diet? Read everything you can get your hands on, beginning with Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes. Educate yourself. Then take a deep breath and make an informed decision in concert with your gut instinct.
It is unfortunate, but here it is: doctors receive little to no training on the subject of nutrition, and what they do learn is often based on outdated research or research skewed by the meddling of special interest groups. What does all this mean? It means you’re basically on your own when it comes to figuring out best diet practices for your baby. A scary thought and a huge responsibility.
One that comes with the job of parenting.
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*Kars4Kids does not take a position on immunization, instead offering both sides of the debate for our readers here: https://www.kars4kids.org/blog/immunization/