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Kids and Carbohydrates: How Low Should They Go?

Kids and Carbohydrates: How Low Should They Go? 37762
A recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that, at least in adults, a low-carbohydrate (<40 grams/day) diet led to greater weight loss and more beneficial improvements in blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels than a low-fat (<30% of daily energy intake from total fat) diet. Researchers concluded that restricting carbohydrates may be an option for those who want to lose weight and reduce cardiovascular risk factors.

The study, highlighted on Good Morning America, in The New York Times, and in countless other outlets will likely have many parents, in their efforts to manage their own weight, continue with their low carb ways. And if parents are eating low carb, should they encourage kids—especially if overweight—to do the same? I hope not!

For one, carbohydrates provide the basic fuel needed by the brain, red blood cells, and entire central nervous system. Carbohydrates also supply the body with serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood, appetite and sleep. Too few carbohydrates—and serotonin—can very well make kids feel sleepy and irritable. And what parent in their right mind wants to do anything to encourage that?!

According to current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, about half of kids' calories should come from carbohydrates. More precisely, the range suggested is 45 to 65% of total calories. Based on What We Eat in America, kids fall into that range, and get an average of 53 to 56% of their total calories from carbohydrates. But while many kids can certainly afford to curb their intake of carbohydrate by at least a little bit, especially with obesity rates as they are, it's wise for them to reduce intake of sugary snacks and drinks that provide empty calories rather than forgo grains (even if refined, like pasta or white bread) and other carbohydrate-rich, nutrient-packed foods.

That doesn't mean kids should OD on white bread, pasta, white rice, sugary cereal, French fries, cookies, and donuts to get their carbs. Going overboard on such foods, especially when served in bloated portions at fast food and other restaurants (not to mention ballparks), will most definitely leave less room for other nutrient-rich foods to help them optimally grow and develop.

Currently, kids consume most grains in their refined rather than whole form. So one key way to improve (if not slightly reduce) kids' carbohydrate intake is to help them replace some of the refined carbs in their diet with whole grains. Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans urge three to six grains daily, with at least half as whole grains, for kids who consume 1,000 to 2,400 calories. (For reference (see page 16), two to five-year-olds require at least 1,000 to 1,200 calories; six- to 10-year-olds require at least 1,200 to 1,600 calories; 11- to 14-year-olds 1,600 to 2,000 calories; and 15- to 18-year-olds require at least 1,800 to 2,400 calories daily.)

Although they tend to get a bad rap (or is it wrap?!) because they're carbohydrate-rich, whole grains are sources of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins, and dietary fiber. Whole grain intake has also been linked with reduced heart disease risk. It may also help reduce constipation, and promote healthy weight.

Some whole grains that kids enjoy include popcorn, air-popped, with canola or vegetable oil; cooked oats or whole grain, high fiber cereal (eg low fat granola or another crunchy cereal mixed with fresh fruit, nuts and/or seeds, or low fat yogurt); and brown rice mixed with stir-fried poultry or beef and vegetables.

For ideas on how to enhance the taste and flavor of whole grains and to serve them and other carbohydrate-rich foods in appealing ways, check out the Meal Makeover Moms website. Also, there's evidence that nudging your kids toward whole grains by making them more fun can also help. A recent study published in BMC Public Health found that presenting kids with whole wheat bread in fun shapes can help increase their intake.

When it comes to kids and carbs, it's also important to remember that carbohydrates aren't just found in grains. Fruits and vegetables (which kids don't get enough of, anyway), beans, nuts and seeds, and milk are also sources of carbohydrates and can create the foundation for a healthful dietary pattern for most children. Depending on their individual calorie needs, current guidelines recommend that kids aim for one to two cups fruit (whole fruit preferable to juice), one to three cups vegetables (including dark green, red and orange, legumes, and starchy vegetables), and 2 to 3 cups dairy foods including low-fat or nonfat milk/yogurt.

I'm all for encouraging kids to have fewer carbohydrate-rich foods like French fries, potato chips, cookies, candy, and soda. But it's essential that they not throw out of their diets fruits (despite their natural sugar content) and other foods that provide quality carbohydrates and other important nutrients to keep them healthy.  Such foods are also vital for kids who are very active or athletic since carbohydrates are the main fuel for their working muscles.

If your child is overweight, you may think that it's perfectly fine to forget about any possible benefits carbs provide and to simply cut them from their diet. If you mean cutting many of the extras like cookies and cupcakes, I'm all for that. But if you mean cutting all pasta, rice, bread, or crackers, whether or not they're whole grain, I say that sticking to small portions of those foods is better than not including any of them. Even refined grains provide nutrients (though not as much as whole grains). There's also proof that cutting portions rather than carbs may be enough to promote healthy weight management.

A recent year-long study published in Journal of Pediatrics of more than 100 obese 7- to 12-year-olds found that lowering carbohydrate intake was just as effective as a standard portion-controlled diet (an energy-reduced, low fat diet) for weight management. However, the researchers also found that the low carbohydrate diet was more difficult for the kids to follow, especially over the long-term. They concluded that either diet can effectively help kids lose weight.

When it comes to kids and carbs, my bottom line is this: choose smart carbs in smaller portions rather than cutting them altogether. That way, kids can reap their many nutritional and other benefits carbohydrate-rich foods provide while still consuming a healthful and still edible diet.

Image of healthy cereal rings via shutterstock.

What's your take on carbs and kids?

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