RHR: What Nutrients Do Kids Need to Thrive?

RHR: What Nutrients Do Kids Need to Thrive?

by Chris Kresser

Last updated on

revolution health radio

A Paleo-type diet is a great option for adults, but what about children? Will it provide everything they need to thrive? Today I discuss the specific nutritional needs of kids and how a Paleo diet can meet those needs. I’ll also talk about the American habit of providing “special” meals for kids—kids’ menus at restaurants, kids’ breakfast cereals, etc.—and how these are not only unnecessary but also unhealthy.

In this episode, we cover:

  • Do kids need different food from adults?
  • The nutrients kids need most
  • Ways to monitor your child’s nutrition

Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody. It’s Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, we have a question from Terra. Let’s give it a listen.

Terra: Hello, Chris. My name is Terra and I’ve been following your work for several years now. Our family has pursued a functional medicine-type lifestyle for the last couple of years and we’ve overcome a great number of health issues as well as escaped a toxic mold situation that was wrecking our health. I do have a question for you specifically regarding children. We’ve had our kids on mostly the same dietary plan as we’ve had for the last couple of years. We are all gluten-free and most of the kids are also dairy-free except for the few that tolerate it in small portions. With that being said, our kids are on the very small side. All of them except for one are under the first percentile for height and they are very small in weight as well. I will say that my husband is Asian and he is five foot three, and I am only five foot six. So we’re not the largest people on the planet. With that said, I will say that they are also smaller than most all of their peers. I’m just curious if I should be doing anything different in regards to their nutritional needs on a daily basis as children. I know people often will tell me that they need milk or that they need grains or that they need all these things to help them with their growth. But I also know the downfalls of those different things. So I’m just curious what your thoughts are regarding children specifically and any additional nutritional needs that they may need. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Chris: Thanks so much for sending that question in, Terra. This is one of the most important topics for me as a father myself, and I just am so passionate about the health of future generations and making sure our kids are getting the nutrition they need and also just avoiding things in the environment that could worsen their health. It’s a hugely important issue. I can’t think of many topics in the whole health world that are more important than this. Thanks again for bringing this up.

Do kids need different food from adults?

Chris: Before we talk more specifically about your question, Terra, I want to step back and discuss this issue a little bit more generally first. I think one of the most ridiculous aspects of the Standard American Diet and our overall approach to food in this country is this idea of kids’ food being different from adult food. For example, if you go out to a restaurant with a kid, one of the first things they’re going to do is bring you a kids’ menu. If you look at the kids’ menu, generally, it’s some combination of pizza, like cheese pizza; macaroni and cheese, or some other kind of super-simple pasta dish with butter or maybe cheese on it; burgers and fries; grilled cheese sandwiches; this sort of thing.

Then of course we have the mega-industry that is kids’ breakfast cereals like Trix and Cap’n Crunch, and I don’t even know what they are anymore, I’m just thinking back to the ones that we had in my childhood. Super Sugar Crisp, cereals that are just absolutely full of sugar and other crap, totally processed and refined. We’ve got a whole range of packaged lunch products like Lunchables, juice boxes, things that you squeeze out of a tube and a whole bunch of other processed and refined foods that we’re supposed to give our kids and have them take to school. It’s pretty typical now for families to prepare an entirely different meal for their kids, whether we’re talking about breakfast, lunch, or dinner, than what the adults in that family are eating. I think that’s a direct result of this food culture that we’ve developed in this country with this idea of kids’ food being separate, which, by the way, is a notion that was predominantly created by Big Food to sell more stuff.

I mean, if you don’t have the notion of “kids’ food,” then you’re just feeding your kids the same kind of foods that you’re eating, and you’re going to end up spending a lot less money on all of these so-called “kids’ food products” that we’re led to believe that we should be giving our kids, so this is a big commercial opportunity for Big Food, and they spent a lot of money on marketing and advertising to make people think that somehow they’re depriving their kids if they don’t feed them this kind of food.

Is a Paleo diet OK for children?

If we think about this from an evolutionary perspective, of course it’s absurd. There was no such thing as kids’ food. There was just food in hunter–gatherer cultures and even up until very recently in this country. You don’t have to go back to the Paleolithic era and you don’t even have to go back to the early agricultural period; you can just go back, in many cases, even just 50 years, certainly 100 years in this country, and you would find that kids were eating the same things that their parents were eating and their grandparents were eating, and when they sat down to have a meal at the table, they were all eating the same foods.

Now, certainly very young kids, for example, the kids who don’t have teeth yet or kids that aren’t able to chew certain foods, they may have needed some modifications like meat being cut off the bone and cut into smaller chunks so that they are able to chew it well, but they can largely eat the same food as adults. This is exactly what happened in our home. We have a daughter, Sylvie, who’s almost six years old, and she’s eaten the same food that we’ve eaten from the beginning. If we’re having dinner and we have salmon, kale, and sweet potatoes, that’s what Sylvie has. If we’re having breakfast and we have eggs, some greens, some bacon or plantains, that’s what she has. If we go out to dinner, the only thing she does with the kids’ menu is color on it with crayons, which I think is an appropriate use of the kids menu. That’s the only appropriate use of the kids menu. We will almost always order for her off of the adult menu, and it’s pretty fun to see the look on the waiter’s face sometimes when we order a medium rare New York steak with broccoli and red potatoes for her, and then the look on their faces when she finishes a good part of it is always interesting as well.

In general, I think we need to get away from this notion that there is separate kids’ food from adult food. That’s one of the biggest problems overall with nutrition for children. Now, of course that’s not Terra’s question. Terra, it sounds like, is feeding her child a Paleo-friendly, gluten-free and mostly dairy-free diet (except for the kids that tolerate it in small portions), and that’s fantastic. What I just said there doesn’t apply to Terra particularly, but it’s something that comes up a lot in discussions with parents, and just my observation about the food system overall and the role of nutrition for kids in that system, so I wanted to mention it.

The nutrients kids need most

But getting back to Terra’s question specifically, “Do kids need any special nutrients above and beyond what adults need?” The answer to that is no, they need the same nutrients. However, it’s even more important, arguably, that they get adequate amounts of those nutrients because those nutrients are so crucial to the developmental process overall, and we now know that there are really important windows for development that if the child is not adequately nourished during those windows, that can unfortunately lead to lifelong consequences. I guess I would say the stakes are higher for making sure those nutrients are adequately represented in the diet. As you know, kids are still growing, they’re still developing in so many different ways, and so those nutrients that we talk about as being important for adults are arguably even more important for kids, so let’s talk about what some of those are.

Fat-soluble vitamins

You’ve got fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, and K2, in particular, but also E. And the foods that will be richest in fat-soluble vitamins would be organ meats for vitamins A and K2, cold-water fatty fish for vitamin D. Cod liver oil is a great source of vitamins D and B. Fermented foods are a good source of vitamin K2. Dairy—particularly hard cheese can be a good source of K2 if it’s tolerated. Pasture-raised egg yolks can be a decent source of K2. Natto—the fermented Japanese soy product—is the highest source of K2, but I have to admit, I have a really hard time with natto. I don’t like it myself. I wouldn’t expect Sylvie, our daughter, to like it. If you can get your kid to eat natto, that’s great, but there are other sources of K2 that are probably more reasonable for most kids.

Choline and glycine

Choline and glycine—pasture-raised egg yolks are a fantastic source of choline, and one of the best sources is organ meats, as well, and then, bone broth nutrition, which of course, is a really great source of glycine. Glycine is really important to balance the effects of methionine, which is the amino acid that’s found in muscle meats. Part of the issue in the US, and the industrialized world in general, now, we tend to eat a lot of muscle meats, which are high in methionine, but we don’t eat as much of the fattier cuts of meat or the collagen-dense cuts of meats, the gelatinous cuts like oxtail, brisket, or shanks, which are really high on glycine.

Traditionally, our ancestors ate from nose to tail, so all of the different parts, and what we now know is that it’s this balance of glycine that you get from the more gelatinous cuts and then the nutrients you get from eating the organ meats like choline, and all of the B vitamins and the fat-soluble vitamins that balance the effects of methionine. If you eat too much methionine with not enough of the glycine and the other nutrients that are found in organ meats, then there is some evidence, actually, that suggests that that can increase the risk of cancer. We know once you already have cancer, there’s benefit in restricting the intake of methionine and leucine. And so, there’s an argument to be made for not just eating very high amounts of methionine without also eating enough glycine and some of the fat-soluble vitamins, choline, and B vitamins that would be found in organ meats.

Iodine

Then we have iodine. That’s an important nutrient, and that is found primarily in the sea vegetables and dairy products, if they’re tolerated. A good way to get sea vegetables into the diet would be things like adding some kombu into any soups or stews. It adds a really nice umami flavor and it’s very rich in iodine. Nori sheets that are made with olive oil—sea snacks—these are pretty popular with kids. Sylvie loves them. The downside is that nori is lower in iodine than just about any other sea vegetable, but it’s still a pretty decent source and they can be really good snacks. Another way to get the sea vegetables into the diet is to use kelp flakes in addition to sea salt as a seasoning or a salty flavor. We might put kelp flakes on Sylvie’s scrambled eggs, for example. That’s a good way to get them into the diet. And then, I mentioned dairy products are probably the highest source of iodine in most people’s diet, and it’s not because iodine is in the milk itself. Iodophor is a cleanser that’s used to sterilize the tanks that hold the milk, so the iodine from that cleanser actually gets into the milk and we ingest it that way. Those are some options for iodine.

EPA and DHA

Then of course we have EPA and particularly DHA, which has been shown to be a crucial nutrient for brain development, very, very important for kids, and cold-water fatty fish and shellfish, preferably low-mercury species. That’s the best way to increase or get enough of those nutrients.

Zinc, iron, and copper

We have zinc, iron, and copper—a very wide range of benefits, and organ meats and shellfish are by far the most nutrient-dense sources for those particular nutrients, and certainly they are also found in a variety of other animal products and then copper in some other plant products. But it’s important to know that with all three of those particular—zinc, iron and copper—the absorption of those nutrients from plant foods is much lower, typically, than the absorption from animal foods. It doesn’t mean the plant foods that contain them don’t have a lot of other benefits and that you might not get some of those nutrients from the plant foods, but you’re not going to absorb nearly as much as you would from shellfish, organ meats, muscle meats, or other animal products.

Calcium

Then we have calcium, obviously important for skeletal development and bone. If you’re completely dairy free, then one of the best options is consuming bone-in fish, so Vital Choice, which I’ve spoken about before, it’s one of our favorites. At vitalchoice.com, we order canned salmon with bones still in it, and there are also anchovies, sardines, and other fish that still have the bones in. Once they’re canned, the bones get really soft, so you can just eat the fish with the bones, and that’s a fantastic source of calcium. It’s also a great way to get EPA and DHA and highly absorbable protein and selenium, so you’re killing a number of birds with one stone with that. And then, dark, leafy greens can be a great source of calcium.

Of course, dairy products are a fantastic source of calcium. I’ve written and spoken about this a lot before. I believe that full-fat and fermented dairy can be a healthy addition to the diet if the child tolerates it well. That’s the big question mark. But if there are no signs of any kind of reactions to dairy, no skin breakouts, no digestive issues, no sinus congestion, then full-fat and fermented dairy—the research has been overwhelmingly positive. It helps prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and a number of other conditions. And note that, that is not true for low-fat or non-fat dairy because it appears that many of the beneficial compounds in dairy are found in the fat itself. That can be a really useful addition to a diet if they tolerate it well.

Phytonutrients

And then of course, all of the phytonutrients that are present in fresh fruits and vegetables are very important, and the fiber that’s present in those foods is really crucial to feeding their beneficial gut bacteria, which we know is one of the most important things that we need to focus on for ourselves and our children.

Protein

And then finally protein, making sure that kids are getting enough protein for the development of their muscles, tissues, and enzyme scaffolding. If you think of protein, that it’s kind of like the scaffolding of the body, it’s what is necessary to build that scaffolding and all of those support systems.

Ways to monitor your child’s nutrition

If their diet is very rich in all of these various micronutrients and macronutrients, then I probably wouldn’t worry, especially given your height and the height of your husband. However, if you are concerned, you might consider having some testing done for nutrient status to make sure that they are in the right ranges. If you have access to a functional medicine provider, they could do some serum testing for nutrients. There are also some urine organic acids testing through labs like Genova, for example. The ION Profile or NutrEval can be helpful in identifying deficiencies of certain nutrients.

You also want to make sure that the kids are getting enough to eat overall and that their calorie intake is sufficient. Usually kids will eat according to their hunger. If they’re hungry, they’ll let you know about it and you feed them and it’s relatively simple. But in some cases if there are any issues, you didn’t mention any health problems, Terra, but if there are any issues, for example, like SIBO or any gut issues, undiagnosed parasites, or anything like that, those could potentially affect appetite, and perhaps the kids are not eating as much as they normally would otherwise.

Depending on what their overall intake is of carbohydrate, sometimes what we’ve seen with adults is that when people go on, unintentionally, a kind of low-carb Paleo type of diet, their overall calorie intake drops as well. If they’re really active they may not be getting enough carbohydrates to fuel their particular activity levels. I think the idea that kids have to eat grains and dairy to be healthy is preposterous because for the vast majority of human history, kids and adults were not eating grains and dairy. That was the natural human diet. It didn’t include those foods. But, there is something to be said for getting enough food and calories overall, and so things like sweet potatoes, plantains, yuca, taro, these starchy tubers can be really important for kids to make sure they’re getting enough calories and enough glucose to fuel activity levels, especially if you’re not including grains, dairy products, and things like that. If you’re not including those foods in their diet, then I would do that because it’s possible that if they’re not really eating those carbohydrate sources, then they’re not getting enough calories overall.

Those are my thoughts. I hope that’s helpful. It sounds like you guys are doing a great job with their diet and I imagine that they’re doing fine, but if you want to have a little bit of extra assurance, you could consider having some of that testing done and make sure their nutrient status is good overall. You could also do some calculations using something like MyFitnessPal or nutritiondata.com on what their overall calorie intake is, what your estimates are based on what you’re feeding them, and then compare that with what the calorie intake should be for a kid of their age and their height and weight. That might be able to help give you an idea of where they are on that spectrum and if you may need to add some higher-calorie foods to their diet.

Last thing along those lines is I’ve talked about things like white rice in the past. As many of you know, I think that white rice, which is just starch, can be a fine addition to the diet as long as it doesn’t replace more nutrient-dense foods and as long as it’s well tolerated. That can be a way of increasing calorie intake as well, particularly carbohydrate if they’re not getting a lot of that elsewhere.

Okay, Terra, thanks again for your question. Thanks, everybody, for listening. If you have a question, go to chriskresser.com/podcastquestion, and I’ll talk to you soon.

13 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. About miso (we use chick pea miso) but put it into our homemade soup after its cooled down a bit. (To keep the microbes from dying.) About a heaping teaspoon makes a gravy in the soup adds flavour to one bowl. Never eat it by itself. My daughter likes it. My husband soso.

    • Great article (as usual from Chris)!!
      I wouldn’t worry about height itself if it doesn’t come along with nutrient deficiency clues.
      Diets high in carbs and dairy are high promoter of MTOR patways with a consequent growth.
      It’s getting clear observing the dietary habits of some cultures around the world.
      Dutch population is the tallest in the world given their high dairy and bread intake.
      But what about bone and overall health?
      Does it match with the lenght or it can be mismatched?
      I’m highly toward the latter option.
      Also here in Italy we have very tall children with a poor development.
      You can see it from their mouth development, they have very narrow faces with crowded teeth.
      Moreover, there’s a high anecdotal evidence about the inverse correlatiom between bone lenght and bone density since dutch people tend to have high fracture risk.
      This, in my opinion, is due to the lack of many other key nutrients well described in this article that are crucial and lack on the western tables.
      The other population that seem to prove my hypothesis is Maasai tribe.
      They are much taller than San or !Kung because they have milk.
      Nevertheless, their bone health and development seems to be far better than ours because they also consume other nutrient dense food (blood, some meat and some vegetables as well).
      Furthermore, leaky gut, dysbiosis and inflammation in our world seem to make people prone to nutrient deficiency, that tied together with the already nutrient poor diet, sets off the perfect storm.
      I’ve seen not so tall children in Paleo diet that are healthy and muscolar.
      I wouldn’t worry about height in absence of other symptoms of nutrient deficiency.

  2. About iodine and how it comes to be in dairy products. I’d take iodine drops or tablets instead. Which I do feed myself and the family. Just saying.

    I note that every other nutrient you mention, you suggest to obtain from naturally occurring sources, but with the milk products, well, I don’t know. Doesn’t sound too natural to me to depend on Iodophor.

  3. We have always fed our kids the same food as adults as well. They often like less seasoned foods, but are ready to eat sauteed zuchinni for breakfast and berries and cream for dessert.

  4. “In many cases, even just 50 years, certainly 100 years in this country, and you would find that kids were eating the same things that their parents were eating and their grandparents were eating, and when they sat down to have a meal at the table, they were all eating the same foods,” I remember my childhood days, I used to eat the same food what my parents and grandparents used to have. In today’s market, every emotion is made into commercial or business (even children’s food). It is the time for each parent to realize(at least after reading this article) that there is no separate food for your child. Thanks, Chris Kresser for the eye opening article for many parents.

  5. “There was no such thing as kids’ food. There was just food in hunter–gatherer cultures…”

    In our house, the same holds true… there is no such thing as kids’ food. This evening we had cold homemade bone broth (congealed, the only way is should be) mixed with fermented kim chi, sliced avocado, authentic olive oil and sea salt… followed that with ground beef (liver, pancreas, spleen, heart and chuck) and ghee… our sides were seaweed and sprouted sorghum (we alternate between sprouted sorghum and sprouted chic peas).

    Kids don’t know any different… we usually end dinner with 100% cacao with a bit of raw honey drizzled. How are you going to complain about that?!

    • Kudos, Brian! I remember when I had my kids in the mid-seventies and keeping them away from sugar and processed foods was a high priority. You wouldn’t believe the back lash of my husband’s family. They thought I was being cruel; in fact, my mum-in-law (who I actually cared about) would sneak them into the kitchen and I caught her feeding my son a big tablespoon full of strawberry jam! Not easy in our environment to keep them on the right nutritional path, but with so much evidence against sugar and other garbage, we have the motivation to give them the very best.

  6. I appreciate all of your personal commitments to healthy eating for yourself and your children. However unfortunately, my children have thrived in the 90 percentile for height and they are in the 50% tile for weights or under, and have lived off of cocoa crunch, frozen pizzas, and chicken nuggets for most of their lives. I hate to admit it but I’m not sure this all makes a great deal of difference.

    • As long as you’re aware that things like Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes can take decades to show up; quite often in the 30’s and 40’s (though it’s showing up more and more early). Also, weight means nothing in terms of developing T2 Diabetes. There are thin people who develop it, also.

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