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An Expert Nutritionist's Take on Keto Diets for Kids

Head and shoulders photograph of Anju Mobin
Mother passing plate of food to child and partner at dinner table
A keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet that uses ketones as an alternate fuel for the body’s metabolic functions. This diet involves eating only 20-50 grams of carbohydrates per day.

The keto diet has many benefits, such as weight loss, fat reduction in the liver, improved insulin sensitivity, and decreased blood pressure, inflammation, and belly fat. It improves mood, boosts immunity, and even triggers autophagy.

Is the keto diet safe—or even beneficial—for children?

While the keto diet is relatively safe for adults, the same isn't true for children. Even though keto diets are recommended for certain health reasons, it is a strict no for kids in general—especially without your doctor's go-ahead.

Children grow at an increased rate and need adequate nutrition. The keto diet is too restrictive and may adversely affect their growth. They may end up deficient in one or more micronutrients that are crucial to these growth years. For this reason, it is essential to consult your doctor before putting your child on any sort of diet or eating plan.

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Use Cases of Keto Diets For Kids

Keto is recommended for children under certain medical circumstances. Children with seizures who don't respond to medications and children undergoing cancer treatment are often prescribed a keto diet. However, this is done under the guidance of a medical physician and registered dietitian.

Keto in Seizure Treatment

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help the brain communicate between neurons. We have excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate and inhibitory neurotransmitters such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The former generates an electrical signal in the receiving neuron, and the latter prevents it. A delicate balance between the two helps the brain work optimally.

Seizures develop when this balance is disrupted. During a seizure, networks of neurons fire up when they are not supposed to. This can happen for many reasons. For example, a diet with a high amount of sugar produces high amounts of insulin. This, in turn, increases the amount of glutamate and decreases the amount of GABA.

Research shows that this low-carb, high-fat diet forces your body to use ketones as fuel instead of glucose. This severely reduces the stress in the brain and alters its excitability, leading to less frequent seizures. It is considered one of the most effective treatments for epilepsy (1).

How It Works

The keto diet works very effectively as ketones support GABA. It helps tone down the excitatory neurotransmitters and brings back the balance between the two, which a high-carb diet can alter. Ketones are anti-seizure and neuroprotective.

The keto diet also reduces inflammation in the brain. Many studies have observed that a ketogenic diet helps increase the bacterial species in your gut that promote the secretion of GABA. Keto diets have been known to decrease the frequency of seizures by about 50% (2).

A ketogenic diet also helps in toning down the side effects of epileptic drugs, such as dizziness, mood changes, irritability, anxiety, etc. It helps improve the overall quality of life.

» Make sure you're meeting your kids' essential nutrient requirements.

Keto in Brain Cancer Treatment

A ketogenic diet, in addition to the standard treatment such as cancer drugs, chemotherapy, and radiation, has proven to be a new route to better survival among patients with brain cancer.

Under normal physiological conditions, brain cells can obtain energy from glucose or ketones. In contrast, tumor cells grow fast and need glucose for energy. In a ketogenic diet, ketones are used as an alternate fuel that these tumor cells can’t use, inhibiting their growth.

Another plausible rationale focuses on beta-hydroxybutyrate, the main ketone produced during ketosis, which has an anti-tumor immune response.

How It Works

In brain cancer, the goal of a keto diet is to deprive cancer cells of their fuel—namely glucose. As these cells starve, they start getting weaker and become vulnerable to cancer treatment. In other words, as per Dr. Thomas Seyfried, it is a two-way punch (3). You stress the cancer cells with starvation and then hit them while they are weak.

» Use these parenting hacks to get your kids to eat healthier.

Adverse Effects of Keto Diets on Growing Bodies

Children need adequate nutrition in their growing years. Any deficiency in essential nutrients can impair their growth and development. Therefore, keto diets are never recommended for kids in general.

However, in certain cases, it is practiced to reap benefits for its therapeutic uses. But this is done only under close medical supervision.

There are chances of severe adverse effects of keto, especially on growing kids. This includes digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. Other serious issues that can occur are vitamin and mineral deficiencies, dehydration, and low blood sugar. Electrolyte imbalance is a big problem too.

The keto diet can cause physical and psychological problems. Depression, irritability, mood swings, and confusion are a few of them, and we definitely don't want any child to suffer the adverse effects of keto.

» Are you on a keto diet? Try these healthy and delicious keto-friendly snacks.

Take Away

Kids need a balanced diet with all the essential nutrients needed to support their growth. They need food that is nutrient-dense and not just calorie-dense. They need healthy fats, complex carbs, and high-quality protein with essential amino acids and micronutrients for optimum growth.

Half of their plate should be filled with colorful vegetables and fruits, while the other half should contain whole grains and proteins. Use less oil and sugar, and add more natural fats when cooking their meals. Keto diets may be good for adults, but they are not recommended for kids.

If you are on a keto diet, you can use one of the best keto meal delivery services to order your own keto meals without having to buy special ingredients at the grocery store.

» Meal kits from Keto Fridge and Home Chef are among the best in the market.

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9823827/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6361831/
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/41561324_Cancer_as_a_metabolic_disease
Head and shoulders photograph of Anju Mobin
Anju Mobin is a certified nutritionist with work experience as a Diet and Fitness Consultant from numerous medical clinics. Founder and editor of fitnesshacks.org, Anju strives to simplify complex information about nutrition, health, and fitness for the general public. As a mother of four children, she also writes about pregnancy and post-pregnancy nutrition, drawing from her own experience.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.