Many adults swear by it—the raw food diet. Eating only uncooked fruits and vegetables (sometimes with raw or unpasteurized dairy products and meat or fish) has helped a number of people to lose weight and ditch their additions to unhealthy fast foods, processed foods, and sugary treats and beverages.
Thrilled with the results, some believe they can save their kids from going through the same health problems they did by starting them out “right”—on raw foods, only. There are several reason, however, why this may not be a good idea for children’s health.
1. Risk of Malnutrition
In 2006, the Nutrition Journal published a case report of a five-and-one-half-month-old infant who died suddenly, and four older siblings who were malnourished. The parents were facing charges of aggravated manslaughter and neglect because they were feeding the children a raw food vegan diet. The infant weight only 6.99 pounds at death, and appeared emaciated. The coroner ruled “malnutrition” was the cause of death. A Florida jury later convicted the parents of four counts of neglect. They appealed the decision.
What some parents may not realize is that a child’s nutritional requirements are different from those of an adult. “Children fed raw foods at weaning are likely to develop protein malnutrition and iron deficiency,” said Dr. Robert Karp, professor of pediatrics at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. “These conditions are precursors to developmental delay and a lifelong learning deficit.”
Dr. Benjamin Kligler, a family practitioner with the Center for Health and Healing in Manhattan, told the New York Times that a child’s digestive system may not be able to pull all the nutrients out of raw food as effectively as an adult’s. Dr. T.J. Gold, a pediatrician in Park Slope, Brooklyn, added that she’d seen several severely anemic children on the raw food diet, and that the parents were supplementing with vitamin B12.
“If you have to supplement something for children in order to do it, is that really the right diet for them?” she said.
Dr. Joel Furhman, author of Disease-Proof Your Child, notes that a raw food diet can leave children lacking enough vitamin B12 and vitamin D, and can also fail to give them enough calories.
Our own Frederic Patenaude wrote in 2011 that he’d noticed children in raw diet families with symptoms of malnutrition, “when children had big bloated bellies, but skinny arms and legs,” while others were hyperactive and always looking for more food.
A 2005 study showed that long-term consumption of the raw food diet helped lower cholesterol levels, but also lowered levels of HDL “good” cholesterol and resulted in B12 deficiency, which could cause an increased risk of coronary heart disease—and this study was done in adults. So far we have little scientific information on the diet in children, though some studies are ongoing. In the meantime, it’s important to note the deficiencies that may occur:
- Vitamin B12: As mentioned, raw and vegan diets can result in B12 deficiencies, as fish, liver, and other animal products are the primary sources of this vitamin. Some algaes and sea veggies contain some of the nutrient, but not enough for what a child needs on a daily basis. This nutrient is key to brain development—deficits during infancy have been tied to a greater risk of depression in adulthood, and to damage to cognitive and social development. Deficiencies in children are linked with learning disorders and autism. Supplementation is necessary.
- Iron: Iron is particularly important in childhood development. It helps create energy—without enough, children may feel tired and listless. Iron also plays a key role in brain development during the early years, and has an impact on behavior and intelligence. An iron deficiency can affect later behavior and intellectual development, and may also hinder the immune system. The best sources of iron are meat, eggs, and beans. You can also get some from spinach, Swiss chard, artichokes, and berries, but again, it’s difficult to get enough every day for proper development.
- Cholesterol: As mentioned in the study below, a raw food diet can result in a very low blood cholesterol level. The Mayo Clinic states low cholesterol levels are linked with anxiety and depression, and may increase risk of preterm birth and low birth weight if the mom’s level is too low during pregnancy. A 2005 study showed that children and teens with low cholesterol levels may have more trouble in school, and were three times more likely to have been suspended than those with higher levels. Researchers have also found some evidence that too low cholesterol could be one of several causes of autism. Fish, eggs, beef, and dairy are the best sources of cholesterol. Children on raw food vegan diets may not be getting enough, even if parents regularly use coconut oil, red palm oil, or other vegan sources.
- Vitamin D: If the kids are getting enough sun they’ll be fine, but during the winter months or in northern latitudes, a lack of enough vitamin D may become a problem, since fish, oysters, meat, and eggs are some of the best sources. Supplementing with cod liver oil may help, but again, you’re looking at constant supplementation as a lifestyle.
- Protein: Children can get the protein they need without animal products if they’re allowed to eat legumes and grains, but without these, fruits, nuts, and veggies may not provide enough. Protein is key for proper growth and development in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Kids need more per pound of body weight than adults do to meet growth and development needs. The Institute of Medicine recommends that quality and quantity of the protein is important, and notes that animal foods provide a higher quality and greater quantity of protein per calorie, a combination that is particularly valuable during childhood.
- Calories: The raw food diet helps adults cut calories, but in children, that may not be such a good thing. With faster metabolisms and growing bodies and minds, they need more fuel. Raw fruits and veggies are not calorie-dense, which can leave children feeling frequently hungry. Keeping track of daily calorie intake can also be difficult, and children’s health can fall through the cracks.
2. Teeth Problems
Mother of two Holly Paige was shocked when she found that her three-year-old daughter had a mouthful of brown teeth. She’d had the family on a raw food diet, thinking she was doing the right thing, and didn’t realize that the kids were suffering from important nutrient deficiencies. She later learned the children had serious protein and vitamin D deficiencies.
“I had let malnutrition in through the back door in the name of health,” she told the Daily Mail.
As we’ve discussed in other posts on this blog, the raw food diet is connected with dental problems, with raw foodists suffering more dental cavities than those not on the raw food diet. Researchers aren’t sure why, yet—it may have something to do with the higher intake of high-sugar fruit, or the constant grazing on fruits and nuts—but either way, children’s developing dental health may be at risk.
Vitamin D deficiencies can also affect teeth and bones. Calcium deficiencies, which are also possible on the diet, can also affect teeth and bone development at this critical time. Parents may forget that most bone-building stops once a person reaches their early 20s. Bones that are not properly nourished during the young years will remain weak for life.
3. Social Issues
As children start to socialize with others, they’re eventually going to realize that their diets are different. Sometimes those differences can result in difficult social situations, such as bullying.
“They were socially isolated,” says Jinjee Talifero, who runs a raw-food education company with her husband in California, “ostracized and simply left out.” She now uses some cooked foods in the family’s diet.
Children subject to strict diets may start to feel depressed, finding it impossible to enjoy food with their friends without being labeled as being “different.” A Netherlands mother was reported as keeping her raw food adolescent boy home from school because the other kids were laughing him at. (Social Services also reported the boy’s growth had been stunted.)
In a Renegade Health Radio podcast, Kevin and Fred talked about the danger of losing important social interactions because of a strict attitude on diet. Parents may want to consider this aspect of their children’s upbringing more seriously, considering the impact early experiences can have on a child’s confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps a relaxation of the rules when the child attends social events or other compromises can help.
“I think it’s important to do whatever we can to raise our children with optimal nutrition,” says ThePaleoMom, “but also with a healthy, not obsessive, attitude toward food.”
What do you think about the raw food diet for children? Do you agree or disagree with these points? Please share your thoughts.
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David K. Cundiff, William Harris, “Case report of 5 siblings: malnurition? Rickets? DiGeorge syndrome? Developmental delay?” Nutr. J. 2006; 5: 1, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1363354/.
Emanuella Grinberg, “Vegan couple cleared of starving baby, guilty of child neglect,” CNN, November 8, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/11/08/child.starved/.
“What’s the harm in being a vegetarian child?” whatstheharm.net, http://whatstheharm.net/childvegetarianism.html.
Columbia News Service, “Raw food diet: half-baked idea for kids?” AZCentral.com, March 19, 2006, http://www.azcentral.com/health/kids/articles/0318rawfoods.html.
Jim Wilson, “Growing Up on Raw Foods,” The New York Times, June 2, 2014, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/growing-up-on-raw-foods/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.
Corinna Koebnick, et al., “Long-Term Consumption of a Raw Food Diet is Associated with Favorable Serum LDL Cholesterol and Triglycerides but Also with Elevated Plasma Homocysteine and Low Serum HDL Cholesterol in Humans,” J Nutr. October 1, 2005; 135(10):2373-2378, http://jn.nutrition.org/content/135/10/2372.long.
Maureen M. Black, “Effects of vitamin B12 and folate deficiency on brain development in children,” Food Nutr. Bull., June 2008; 29(2 Suppl):S126-S131, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3137939/.
Joe Graedon and Teresa Gordon, “Low cholesterol levels, children’s behavior studied,” Baltimore Sun, May 15, 2005, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2005-05-15/news/0505120364_1_low-cholesterol-cholesterol-levels-heartburn.
Dr. Jay Adlersberg, “Cholesterol and Autism,” 7online.com, April 11, 2011, http://7online.com/archive/8066005/.
Angus Watson, “How a strict vegan diet made my children ill,” Daily Mail, August 14, 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1028854/How-strict-vegan-diet-children-ill.html.
Food Insight, “Getting Childhood Off to a Strong Start with Protein,” Foodinsight.org, May 23, 2014, http://www.foodinsight.org/Getting_Childhood_off_to_a_Strong_Start_with_Protein.
“Raw food diet boy must go to school, say social workers,” Dutch News, December 18, 2012, http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2012/12/raw_food_diet_boy_must_go_to_s.php.
The Paleo Mom, “Paleo for Kids?” Thepaleomom.com, January 3, 2012, http://www.thepaleomom.com/2012/01/paleo-for-kids.html.