The Safety of Low-Carb Diet for Kids

What exactly is a low carb diet, and are they safe for children? Could decreasing dietary carbohydrates help teenagers who are overweight?

Father and son eating vegetables
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The History of Low Carb Diets

Low-carb (low carbohydrate) diets are still very popular, with adults raving about the South Beach diet, the Atkins diet, and the plethora of packaged foods that are available as "low carb" alternatives.

When it comes to nutrition, however, we know that children aren't simply little adults. Nutrient needs vary between adults and children, which raises the question: Are these diets safe for children to eat regularly? Can we translate what we know about adults into recommendations for children? And with the adolescent obesity epidemic of our era, could a low-carb diet make a difference?

Low-Carb Diets

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the approximate dietary intake for adults aged 20 and over is:

  • 15% of calories are from protein.
  • 45% of calories come from carbohydrates.
  • 35% of calories come from fat (and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are preferred over saturated fats such as those found in animal products.)

In a low-carb diet:

  • Only 10 to 20% of calories come from carbohydrates.
  • The remaining 80 to 90% of calories come from proteins and fats.

Most low-carb diets also advocate avoiding sugars or simple carbs that have a high glycemic index, which can raise blood sugar faster than high-fiber complex carbohydrates.

Safety as a Bottom Line With Low-Carb Diets for Kids

It's important to first note that studies suggest a strict low-carb diet may have a negative impact on the short-term and long-term health of children and adolescents.

Another concern is that low-carb diets may be hard for kids to follow, and they may simply gain back any weight they lost on the diet when they return to their previous dietary practices. Some experts are also concerned that a high protein/low carb diet could have long-term negative effects on a child's heart and kidneys.

Benefit and Controversies of Low Carb Diet in Overweight Teens

We know that the incidence of childhood obesity is escalating in the United States. The implications of this go far beyond "looks" and even the emotional ramifications of "looking fat." The health effects of childhood obesity, as in adults, ranging from diabetes to sleep apnea.

Although very few research studies have been done on low-carb diets for kids, one study did show that overweight teens did better on a low-carb diet vs. a low-fat diet. Researchers concluded that a low-carb "diet appears to be an effective method for short-term weight loss in overweight adolescents."

Low-Carb Foods

Many foods that are high in carbs seem to be the things that kids like the best, for example, bread, pasta, corn, potatoes, cereal, and fruit juice.,

On the other hand, low-carb foods, in addition to prepackaged low-carb meals and snacks, include:

  • Lean meats, chicken, and fish
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Peanut butter
  • Greens, such as lettuce, spinach, and kale
  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Peaches
  • Cantaloupes
  • Unsweetened applesauce
  • Nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sugar-free Jell-o
  • Sugar-free yogurt
  • Unsweetened soy milk
  • Low-carb milk (Hood Calorie Countdown Dairy Beverage, which has artificial sweeteners)
  • Low-carb bread
  • Low-carb pasta (Dreamfields pasta)

Modified Low-Carb Diet or "Moderation in Everything"

Since many experts blame the rise in childhood obesity on the fact that kids eat more carbs these days, especially more simple sugars, even if your child doesn't start a low-carb diet, taking a closer look at carbs is a good idea.

In addition to more exercise and eating more high-fiber foods, avoiding high-calorie foods, high-fat foods and foods with any trans fats or more than 10% saturated fat may help to encourage the eating of more low-carb foods and avoid high-carb foods made up of simple sugars, such as:

  • White bread (choose whole grain bread instead)
  • Soda and fruit drinks
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Potato chips
  • Cakes, pies, and brownies
  • Candy and other junk food

Together with low-fat milk and age-appropriate portion sizes, this modified low-carb diet could be a good diet for kids, because it isn't overly restrictive and is easy to follow.

Changing Your Child's Diet

Knowing something, and putting it into action, are two separate things, as most parents understand all too well. Some kids are picky eaters, so what can you do to have the best chance for success?

  • Go it slow: Introduce changes in your child's diet slowly, rather than all at once.
  • Model healthy eating habits: The best thing you can do for your child's eating habits is to eat well yourself.
  • Make it fun.
  • Make it interesting: There are oodles of creative ideas online for making even a mundane meal more interesting.
  • Remember variety: A surprising finding in many studies has been that a variety of different foods can sometimes be as important as getting any particular nutrients. Try to serve your child "the colors of the rainbow."
  • Again, remember moderation: Some changes, even when very healthy in moderation, can be unhealthy when taken to the extreme.
  • You may also wish to check out these weight loss tips for kids who just can't seem to lose weight.
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diet/nutrition.

  2. Oh R, Uppaluri KR. Low carbohydrate diet. In: StatPearls [Internet].

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight & obesity.

  4. Sondike SB, Copperman N, Jacobson MS. Effects of a low-carbohydrate diet on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor in overweight adolescents. J Pediatr. 2003 Mar;142(3):253-8. doi:10.1067/mpd.2003.4

Additional Reading
  • Johnston, B., Kanters, S., Bandayrel, K. et al. Comparison of weight-loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 312(9):923-33.

  • Schwingshackl, L., Hobl, L., and G. Hoffman. Effects of low glycemic index/low glycemic load vs. high glycemic index/ high glycemic load diets on overweight/obesity and associated risk factors in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Journal. 14:87.

  • Sondike, S., Copperman, N., and M. Jacobson. Effects of a low-carbohydrate diet on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor in overweight adolescents. Journal of Pediatrics. 142(3):253-8.

  • Truby, H., Baxter, K., Barrett, P. et al. The Eat Smart Study: a randomized controlled trial of a reduced carbohydrate versus a low-fat diet for weight loss in obese adolescents. BMC Public Health. 10:464.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
 Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.