Newsbite: Is the Paleo Diet Healthy (Or Even Safe) for Babies?

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With any diet online trend, you can assume someone is eventually going to take it too far and that time just came for the Paleo diet. Proponents of the Paleo diet are now recommending this “ancestral” eating plan for kids… and even babies. But, unsurprisingly, many experts warn caregivers against feeding babies like they’re characters from “The Flintstones”.

The IFIC Foundation provided some context on the issue in a recent article.

As a refresher, the Paleo diet emphasizes protein and minimally-processed foods. This includes eating a diet limited to grass-fed meat, fish/seafood, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts/seeds, and oils (olive oil, walnut, flaxseed, etc.). The Paleo diet excludes cereal grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, refined vegetable oils, salt and pretty much everything else.

Some of the pros and (mainly) cons of implementing this eating pattern for babies.

The Paleo diet actually includes some healthy complementary foods. Most babies are ready to introduce soft, pureed complementary foods around six months of age. The exact age when solids are introduced should depend on whether they meet important developmental milestones. For breastfed babies, pureed meats (which are all good, according to the Paleo diet) are a great choice to include among babies’ first foods. Babies are born with iron stores, but these begin to dip around six months of age. Pureed meats are iron-rich and can help supplement these iron stores for breastfed babies. Still, these protein-rich options should be fed alongside a variety of other foods that supply a variety of other nutrients and help acclimate the baby’s taste buds to new flavors and textures. Putting baby on a purely Paleo eating plan can exclude several nutrient-rich first foods, like infant cereals, and could reduce exposure to certain new textures.  

It’s also important to remember the vast majority of calories and nutrients in a baby’s diet should come from breast milk or, if breast-feeding is not feasible, iron-fortified infant formula. This is why we refer to foods introduced during infancy as “complementary foods”, because they are introduced in tandem with breast milk or infant formula to help babies learn how to eat and develop a taste for nutritious foods.

If a baby is filling up on too many high-protein and Paleo-friendly foods, this could lower their intake of breast milk or infant formula. Less breast milk or infant formula could mean that the baby has less access to all the necessary nutrients, in the right proportions that they need for healthy development.

The short-term and long-term effects of protein heavy diets (like Paleo) for babies are not yet well understood.

Compared to other nutrients, protein can be more difficult to digest in a baby’s stomach. An excessive amount of protein could lead to digestive discomfort, or possibly kidney problems, as babies’ digestive systems are still quite delicate. Choking is also a concern with some protein foods, so it’s important to stick to pureed meats only. Even softer meats, like hot dog pieces, can be a choking hazard for babies who are starting finger foods.

With all the cons, and not many pros, the evidence supporting the use of the Paleo diet for babies doesn’t stack up.

However, there are many evidence-based resources to help parents build healthy eating patterns for their babies. After all, the healthiest and simplest option is probably to avoid diet trends all together.