Do Kids Need Carbs?

Low Carb Diets vs. Low Fat Diets for Kids

The remarkable popularity of low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins, The Zone, South Beach Diet, Protein Power Diet, and Sugar Busters Diet has many parents wondering, “Should I try to get my kids to eat a low-carb diet, with less bread, pasta, and potatoes?” Based on the amount of media coverage these diets receive, it may seem like this question makes sense. But science tells us that there’s more nonsense than sense in the answer to this very reasonable question.

Science does not support the value of low-carb diets, especially for growing children and young adults. Low-carb advocates point to the fact that many Americans (including younger Americans) followed low-fat diets in the 1980s and 1990s, but still gained weight. However, research shows that, on average, Americans never followed the advice of health professionals to eat less fat. Surveys reported by national groups, like the National Center for Health Statistics, showed that Americans have maintained a moderately high-fat diet for the past couple of decades, eating about 80 fat grams per day. Fat intake has been stable, not declining.

So, in addition to maintaining a relatively high-fat diet, why are we and our children gaining weight? Not from carbs per se, but rather from calories. The increase in weight of many Americans witnessed over the last 20 years comes from increasing total calories, an average of 200 calories a day, and from limiting activity.

Impact of Carbohydrates on Children’s Health

Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for the body, providing fuel for physical activity and brain function. However, the type and amount of carbohydrates consumed play a significant role in a child’s overall health.

healthy carbs
Healthy Carbs infographic via Pinterest


Highly processed and refined carbohydrates, such as sugary snacks, sugary beverages, and white bread, can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by crashes. This can result in mood swings, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating, which can negatively impact a child’s learning and behavior.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide essential nutrients, fiber, and sustained energy. These are important for a child’s growth, development, and overall well-being.

While low-carb diets have gained popularity for weight loss in adults, it’s essential to approach the topic of children and low-carb diets with caution. Children have different nutritional needs than adults, as they are still growing and developing. Restricting carbohydrates too severely can potentially deprive children of vital nutrients and hinder their growth.

Here are the implications for your family:

1. Don’t stop eating carbohydrates.

Breads, potatoes, rice, and pasta should remain mainstays of your family’s diet. These foods can be prepared in very healthy and interesting ways and provide important nutrients for growing children and teens. Keep in mind that nutrition is a key driver of performance in school and that proper nutrition comes from a balanced diet. Also, remember that successful weight controllers eat ten times more carbohydrates than the level recommended by Atkins.

2. Keep working toward decreasing the consumption of fat.

The many health benefits of low-fat eating include the prevention of serious diseases in the long run (like heart disease and cancer) and greatly increased chances of losing weight and maintaining low weight.

3. Watch calories and portion sizes, especially when eating at restaurants.

Portion sizes continue to creep upward, and research shows that Americans have an amazing ability to finish whatever is put on their plates. For example, some restaurants serve six cups of pasta in a regular order. One to two cups should suffice for dinner. Don’t let restaurants decide how many calories you want or need. You be the judge.

Here’s a comparison of the calorie content and portion sizes of some popular kids’ meals from restaurants versus their homemade counterparts. The restaurant meals are generally higher in calories:

Chicken Nuggets/Strips Chili’s Country-Fried Chicken Crispers** ~1,020 Chicken Nuggets**** 214
Macaroni and Cheese Denny’s Mac and Cheese* 413 Mac and Cheese (1 cup)***** 506
Grilled Cheese Sandwich Sonic’s Grilled Cheese *** 830 BBQ Chicken Sandwich****** 284
Turkey or Roast Beef Sandwich Subway’s Roast Beef or Turkey Sub**** 400 2 Turkey Meatballs 125

Restaurant Meals:

    • * McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Arby’s, and Denny’s: A high percentage of kids’ meals exceed 430 calories, which is the recommended maximum per meal for elementary-aged kids.
    • ** Worst Offenders: Some meals, like Chili’s Country-Fried Chicken Crispers and Sonic’s Grilled Cheese as part of the Wacky Pack, can be particularly high in calories, ranging from 830 to about 1,020 calories.
    • *** Healthier Options: There are healthier options at restaurants like Subway and Denny’s that range from 338 to 422 calories.

Homemade Meals:

    • **** Chicken Nuggets: A serving of homemade chicken nuggets (3 ounces) contains 214 calories.
    • ***** Macaroni and Cheese: A typical homemade macaroni and cheese serving (1 cup) contains about 506 calories.
    • ****** Sandwiches: A homemade BBQ chicken sandwich contains 284 calories per sandwich, and two homemade turkey meatballs have 125 calories.

This comparison shows that homemade meals can often be lower in calories, although the actual difference depends on the specific meal and how it’s prepared. Homemade meals also offer the advantage of controlling ingredients to potentially reduce fat, sodium, and additives.

A Balanced Approach to Nutrition for Kids

Children have different nutritional needs compared to adults. Their bodies are still growing and developing, requiring a variety of nutrients for optimal growth and development. Carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, play a significant role in providing energy and essential nutrients for children.

However, this doesn’t mean that all carbohydrates are created equal. Focus on providing children with nutrient-dense carbohydrates and avoiding excessive consumption of added sugars and refined grains. This can help maintain stable blood sugar levels, support healthy growth, and prevent the risk of childhood obesity.

A balanced approach to nutrition for kids involves incorporating a variety of food groups into their diet. This includes lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. By ensuring a well-rounded meal plan, children can receive all the necessary nutrients they need to thrive.

Instead of strictly following a low-carb diet, parents should concentrate on promoting healthy eating habits and teaching children about the importance of making nutritious food choices. Encouraging a diet that is rich in whole foods and limiting processed and sugary snacks can help set the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

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