Are selective diets good for kids? We investigate

Is being gluten-free, paleo or vegetarian healthy for your child? By Kim Bell

Whole foods, organic produce and grass-fed, are all terms that have become synonymous with our shopping lists, while processed, high-sugar, and high salt foods are taking a back step. But as much as we are embracing a healthier eating experience, are selective diets, such as gluten-free, paleo or vegetarianism good for our babies and toddlers?

ALSO SEE: What exactly is a balanced diet for kids?

Balanced eating

According to the Association of Dietetics of South Africa (ADSA), there is a global recognition that the first 1 000 days of life, from conception to two years old, is a key window of opportunity for improving health outcomes during childhood and into adulthood. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months, and continued breastfeeding to two years along with complementary feeding from six months. ADSA adds that the principle of responsive feeding should guide the amount of complementary food that is offered. Of course, each child’s needs differ, but WHO and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommend that your baby’s energy should come from 30 to 45% of total fat, 6 to 7% of protein with the remainder coming from carbohydrates (in line with breastmilk and formula). Experts in nutrition recommend that a baby’s diet does not contain more than 15% of energy from protein, until more is known on the effect of protein on obesity in later life. ADSA says that high nutrient needs, due to rapid growth and development in the first two years of life, means the nutrition density in complementary foods must be high.

Good and bad foods

Restrictive diets for those under the age of 36 months should only be followed in specific medical conditions and under medical or nutritional supervision. Nutrition experts share that avoiding entire food groups with babies and toddlers can create a “dieting mentality”. From birth, children whose parents follow a restrictive lifestyle, may start categorising foods as “good” or “bad”. Sally Kuzemchak, registered dietician and founder, has been quoted as saying: “I don’t think children should go on any kind of restrictive diets that cut out food groups or long lists of foods unless it’s medically necessary, such as with food allergies or celiac disease. Restriction can feel like deprivation to children, who may end up sneaking food or overeating those ‘forbidden’ foods when they have access to them. That does not set up your child for a positive, healthy relationship with food.”

ALSO SEE: How to encourage good eating habits in your child

Follow your gut

Catherine Barnhoorn, a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, author of Mila’s Meals: The Beginning & The Basics, and founder of, says as parents, our children’s health is our responsibility. “Not the doctor’s, not the government’s, not the supermarket’s.” Catherine believes that disease begins in the gut. She promotes full mind-body nutrition, with an awareness of food intolerances, as an imperative for optimal growth and future health. Strong digestion allows for greater absorption of nutrients and a stronger immune system. She has healed herself from autoimmune conditions, including endometriosis, candida, leaky gut and severe eczema, through diet, and organic and holistic living. She noticed her daughter Mila reacting badly to the same foods she did, even while breastfeeding and decided to raise her child on a diet free from gluten, sugar and diary, which has worked for both of them. Catherine shares that food should delight the senses as well as the body. “I am all for food that is nutrient-dense, free of additives, as close as possible to its natural whole form and where-ever possible, organically grown and pasture-fed. It should include fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, healthy fats and naturally fermented foods.”

She adds, “Please, please educate yourself. Explore, discover, and learn. Go beyond the clever marketing, the labels, the government guidelines and the conventions. Make informed decisions based on information you have sought out, not that which is fed to you by marketers selling a product or pamphlets in a paediatrician’s office. Your child and your future self will thank you for it.”

Selective diets explained:


Gluten is the protein that is found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. Nutrition experts share that most healthy adults and children don’t need to eliminate gluten-containing food from their diets. However, this can be beneficial for those who suffer from celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant. In general, try stay away from high-processed foods and rather focus on wholegrains, such as oats. Other alternatives include quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, corn or lentils.


There are a number of different types of vegetable-based diets, including those that cut out eggs and/or dairy. A plant-based diet can be beneficial for your child, but as long as you ensure your toddler gets sufficient protein and nutrients into her diet, due to her high dietary requirements the first three years of life. Zinc and iron deficiencies can occur in restrictive vegetarian diets. However, on the flip side, plant-based diets have shown to lower the risk of obesity, diabetes and even heart disease. If you are going to go this route, make sure you have the guidance of a nutrition expert who specialises in vegan or vegetarianism for babies and toddlers.

ALSO SEE: The truth about new baby feeding trends


This is based on a hunter/gatherer principle and focuses on seasonal eating, grass-fed proteins, nuts, and avoidance of processed foods, diary, refined sugars, vegetable oils and grains. Lean protein and seafood are encouraged. This way of eating can be beneficial, again under guidance. Wholegrains are a fantastic source of low-GI carbohydrates which benefit slow-releasing energy, while the protein helps benefit healthy brains. However, the lack of diary can mean that your child’s diet falls short. Do your research and make sure you have nutritional advice.

ALSO SEE: 5 nutritional benefits of milk for kids

Nutritional recommendations

Prof Lisanne du Plessis, senior lecturer at the Division of Human Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, who has a special interest in health nutrition maternal health and nutrition and infant and young child feeding, in Guidelines on Suitable Complementary Foods, shares the following advice:

  • Provide a variety of foods to ensure that nutrient needs are met. This includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, meat and meat alternatives (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and nut butters) and dairy products from the age of 12 months in addition to breast milk.
  • Foods from animals (meat, poultry, fish or egg) should be eaten daily, or as often as possible, to meet protein and iron needs. In infants and young children, vegetarian diets can’t meet nutrient needs unless nutrient supplements or fortified products are used.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables and orange coloured vegetables and fruit rich in vitamin A (this includes: sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin, broccoli and spinach, mango, peaches, apricot, paw- paw) should be eaten daily.
  • Provide diets with an adequate fat content (from plant foods, such as vegetable oils, avocado, nut butters, animal preoducts and breast milk).
  • Use fortified complementary foods or vitamin-mineral supplements for infants, as needed or prescribed.
  • Restrictive diets for infants should only be followed in specific medical conditions and under strict medical supervision.
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