The low-carb (not even bananas!), high-fat (think: cheese and avocados) keto diet is still enjoying popularity, and granted, it works for a time for a good number of adults (my brother included). Hearing about it even piqued my teen's interest. And that's the thing about trends and fads, right? Once your kid hears about the latest one, they can be relentless in trying to get you to agree to let them try it. But can — or rather, should — a person age 18 or younger restrict certain foods on this, or any, diet? Not for allergies, mind you, but for wellness and/or weight loss?
If your tween or teen asks you about trying the keto diet, it'll help to have some expert insight for handling the situation. So, Scary Mommy tapped a few pros for advice on navigating these tricky waters.
Is a keto diet healthy for teens?
Keto is not for teens, according to dietitians. "It's not recommended to have teens follow fad diets, and the keto diet has become a fad diet for both adults and teens who want a quick weight loss solution," says Lona Sandon, Ph.D., RDN, a professor at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "However, it's not a balanced diet that will provide all the nutrients teens need for growth and development. It can come up short on key nutrients such as calcium, fiber, and antioxidant vitamins A and C, to name a few."
While the 1992 food pyramid has been replaced by a plate showing the food groups, you'll notice that grains are still a nutritional must. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that carbohydrates — bread, beans, apples, rice, pasta, potatoes, and more, both complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates — comprise half of a teen's calories. That is pretty much the opposite of keto.
There is an exception for children with epilepsy, who are sometimes helped by a very monitored keto diet for a period of time. But that's not something to embark on without a diagnosis and a doctor.
How can we help teens eat healthy foods?
A message for all: Carbs are not the enemy. Even if your teen hears adults talking about low-carb or no-carb diets, the goal is, was, and will always be encouraging kids to eat a little of everything. No teenager should be encouraged to vilify a food or have something they forbid themselves to enjoy (unless food allergies are involved, or they want to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan). "Having teens on a keto diet does not instill a healthy relationship with food," Sandon says. "Dieting can also result in poor mental health due to calorie restriction and feelings of deprivation."
Letting your kids eat anything can be especially tough for parents recovering from an eating disorder. But it's critical. "Up to half of youth experience weight-based teasing from family members," says Virginia Sole-Smith, whose book Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture is due out in April 2023. "Teasing is most likely to happen in families where parents are already concerned about their kid's weight or are dieting themselves. All of this has consequences. Kids who are fat-shamed by family members report higher levels of stress and substance abuse and lower self-esteem into young adulthood."
When teens want to diet, it could be a troubling sign.
The signs of disordered eating can be challenging to spot because, after all, who doesn't want their kid to exercise and crave, say, a nice salad? But if your kid is asking to go on the keto diet, "Ask them, in the most nonjudgemental way you can, why they think they need to lose weight," suggests Sandon. "Consider having your teen assessed by a registered dietitian or pediatrician to determine if they are at an appropriate weight and body composition. If your teen is overweight, it's important to determine what might be the reason. But if they're a healthy weight and want to diet anyway, they may need to be assessed for disordered eating behaviors or body dysmorphia."
Offer a different solution for your teen to use for health, such as the MyPlate app, Sandon says. "Help them see that when you feed your body better and move your body more, you feel better," Sandon says, no special diet required.
When it comes to your teen's body, say less.
"When talking with teens about body image, sometimes saying less is more," Sandon continues. "Avoid commenting on your teen's physical appearance, and avoid bad-mouthing yourself. Negative comments you make about your own appearance influence your teen."
When your teen is talking to you about their body, your main job is to listen, Sole-Smith says. Unfortunately, "even your well-meaning advice about intuitive eating and joyful movement might make your kid believe that you're saying they need to change," she says. "Do not let your child believe that their body is their value."
In fact, when Sole-Smith polled adults on Instagram and Twitter about their experiences with being overweight as kids for her Burnt Toast newsletter, most said their parents were not helpful because they tried to do too much, like introduce Weight Watchers, or their parents allowed a sibling's teasing. Critically, most of the adults remembered learning from their parents that being fat is bad, instead of ever being told that "fat" is not a moral failing. The most heart-wrenching response: "I wish they had just loved me instead of trying to fix me."
So, the answer to a teen's diet request is a "no" unless it is doctor-recommended and supervised. Don't let meals become power struggles, Sandon says. Try to have regular family meals where you all sit down together. "Allow your teen to choose how much and what they want to eat from the meal that is offered," Sandon suggests. "But skip the keto fad." Adds Sole-Smith: "All kids, including fat kids, need love and validation, not diet tips."