A Paleo-type diet is often recommended for myriad health issues including depression, ADHD, autism, chronic pain and autoimmune disease. The simplistic definition of this strategy is to remove grains, dairy and legumes and focus instead on meat, seafood, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
I find Paleo to be a very helpful starting point for children who are struggling with self regulation issues like autism and ADHD. I find it helps stabilize mood, energy and blood sugar, it helps relieve digestive distress, it helps generally reduce inflammation. When we can do all that, we see focus and sleep improve, we see learning and growth improve, we see emotions and mood stabilize.
The number one concern I hear cautioning parents against trying Paleo with their kids is the risk of nutritional deficiency.
Kids are in a rapid state of growth and require massive amounts of nutrients and energy in steady supply. It’s a valid concern… if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Here’s where that concern comes from: most people think of Paleo as an elimination approach – we are removing foods. Period. When you take that approach you open yourself up to nutritional deficiency.
I encourage you to shift your perspective from this being an elimination of certain foods to being a substitution of certain foods for others.
In order to do this safely and see the benefits while avoiding the risk of nutritional deficiency, you need to understand a little about nutrition.
The nutrients I am most concerned about when people take out grain, dairy and legumes are: Fibre, Folate, B12, B6, Calcium.
I highlight these nutrients because the Paleo no-no’s (like grains, legumes and dairy) are handy sources, and they are nutrients which are critical for neurological health and development – the very things I’m trying to help parents improve.
Because of their importance to the developing brain and body I usually recommend that certain specific beans remain in the diet for children on a Paleo approach, even though traditionally they are left out. On occasion I also recommend that some of the seed-like grains such as quinoa remain in too. But it all depends on the individual.
Here are foods to focus on to avoid these nutritional pitfalls of Paleo.
Find Fibre In:
Nuts, nut butters, all cooked and raw veggies, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, plantain, fresh and dried fruit, flax seed, chia seed, psyllium seed, seaweeds, beans if tolerated
Find B-Vitamins (particularly 6 and 12) in:
Sunflower seeds, pine nuts, calf or chicken liver, heart, almonds, banana, grass fed beef, spinach, sweet potato, hazelnuts, all meat, chicken, fish, chic peas, lentils, pistachios
Find Folate in:
Same as that listed for B vitamins as well as: Leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale, beet greens), asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, black eyed peas, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, walnuts
Important to note: when you take out grains (particularly wheat and corn) you also take out a big source of synthetic folic acid which is added by law for fortification. This folic acid can be doing more harm than good because 50-60% of us do not metabolize it well into a usable form due to our genetics. In the autistic population that percentage jumps to 98%! When synthetic folic acid enters the body it can clog up the folate receptor sites with an unusable form causing folate deficiency. Replacing those fortified grains with these sources mentioned here brings in a more useable form of folate.
Find Calcium In:
White and black sesame seeds, Almonds, Sunflower seeds, Walnuts, Sesame butter, Almond butter, Swiss chard, Kale, Green beans, Peas, Broccoli, Carrot, Avocado, Kidney beans, Wild rice
Many of the children I work with have been found to be gluten sensitive – either through testing or through careful tracking of symptoms. Gluten is extremely hard to digest and sensitivity to it has been associated with over 200 medical symptoms and conditions including some cases of ADHD, anxiety, depression and autism – so it comes as no surprise since these are the kids I work with.
Why is Paleo more helpful to these kids than gluten free?
While wheat, rye, barley, spelt and kamut are commonly thought of as “the gluten-grains”, many doctors and practitioners are now calling for the complete elimination of all grains if someone is found to be sensitive to gluten. The reason for this is that other grains such as oats, rice and corn contain different types of gluten (other than gliadin, the type of gluten typically associated with “gluten sensitivity”) along with other food chemicals like phytic acid, lectin and glutamate and the pesticide glyphosate which is sprayed on most non organic grains. These have been found capable of causing the same kind of intestinal irritation as “gluten-grains”.
In a child who is struggling to self regulate, like kids with the symptoms and conditions listed above, this irritation needs to go so we can make room for positive momentum and digestive healing.
In my programs I generally start with gluten free, then gently move families to grain free (modified paleo) in a gradual progression for a trial period while carefully tracking symptoms and working on digestive regeneration.
I’ve also heard parents express concern over excessive amounts of animal protein and animal fat in a Paleo-type diet.
If you’ve been following my work you’ll know that I’m all about supporting the gut microbes! This concern about animal protein and fat is, I think, valid and leads us to a very common pitfall with Paleo…. Don’t Forget The Veggies!
Again, Paleo is just as much about what you are putting in as what you are taking out. Paleo is not all about meat and fat.
Vegetables contain protective nutrients that are a critical part of making this diet approach healthy for kids. More and more human studies are being done looking at the effect of a Paleo-type diet on weight, metabolism, immune function, neurological processes and heart health that show us this way of eating can be very healthy if it’s done well.
Let’s ditch the word “Paleo” and focus on your child, ok?
When trying to figure out what and how to feed to your kids it’s more helpful to think about concepts than to adhere to a particular defined protocol. Your child is an individual. With individual needs.
I find that a Paleo-type diet that removes dairy and grains (and any other allergens you’ve discovered) while heaping on the plants, eating quality meat, fish and eggs along with select beans and sometimes pseudo-grains (like millet and quinoa) can be a great diet for kids who are struggling with self regulation, learning, focus or growth.
This way of eating follows the 4 concepts I write about in my book, Raising Resilience.
This can be done with a Paleo-type diet… but you need to pay close attention which is what I help you do in my Safe Paleo For Kids e-course. It will walk you through exactly what to do and offer you a meal plan to follow.
2012: Pennesi Christine M.; Klein Laura Cousino. Effectiveness of the gluten-free, casein-free diet for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder: Based on parental report. Nutritional Neuroscience.
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Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com
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