I am a kid/teenager. Can I go on a low carb diet?
Yes and no.
First of all, you can go on any dopey diet you want, including the Nothing-But-Twizzlers-And-Coke-Diet. Not much of a way anyone can stop you. One hopes that what you're really asking is, "Is it reasonable and healthy for a person who is still growing to go on a low carb diet?"
Kids do need more carbs than adults do, and can tolerate more, as witness the fact that breast milk has more carbohydrate -- in the form of lactose -- than it does protein or fat. Accordingly, most kids should be able to lose weight and attain good health on a diet richer in carbohydrate than their elders may need.
On the other hand, there's not a body in the world, including kids' bodies, that needs garbage like sugar and processed, refined starches. For a whole lot of you kids, if you just cut out the soda pop, the candy, the cookies, the ice cream, the juice (Yes, juice. It's very, very sugary. In point of fact, apple juice has more sugar in it than Coke does.), the white bread, the white flour pasta, the highly processed cold cereal, the chips and pretzels, etc., etc., you'd rapidly drop any extra weight. I had one friend who simply stopped drinking a dozen cans of Pepsi a day, and lost weight!
"Geez," you're thinking, "What aren't I giving up?" Hey, just because most of the carb foods that Americans eat fall into the category of highly processed junk doesn't mean that there's all there is. Kids, even obese kids, should be able to have a few moderate sized servings a day of stuff like brown rice, whole wheat pita bread and other 100% whole grain breads (read the label to make sure it doesn't have junk like corn syrup -- and keep in mind that unless it says "whole wheat", it's not. "Wheat flour" means white wheat flour. "Unbleached flour" is white flour, too.), whole grain pasta, the higher carb fruits (stuff like apples, bananas, pineapple and the like), whole grain, no sugar added cereals, milk (Yes, milk has to be considered a carbohydrate -- it has 12 grams of carb per cup, 8 grams of protein.) corn on the cob, even a small potato now and then -- stuff that many adult low carbers have to drop to be able to lose weight.
Keep in mind that these should not be the backbone of the diet. Just like the adults, kids should be getting plenty of protein -- meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and the like. I know that vegetarianism is currently trendy with kids; I don't want to argue, but be aware that feeling sorry for the animals who get killed for food does not change what your body needs. On the other hand, there's no reason you can't get plenty of protein from cheese and eggs. Soy products have good protein, but unfortunately they can apparently also damage your thyroid gland, and this risk appears, from the articles I've been able to find on the subject, to be even more pronounced in children. I can't advocate kids getting most of their protein from tofu and other soy products.
And, of course, kids, just like everyone else, should be eating their vegetables. (You think the folks in the wonderful world of nutrition can't agree on anything? Not true. Eat your vegetables. :-) ) Yes, you. Eat a salad. Have some veggies and dip for a snack.
Those of you who have read my book, _How I Gave Up My Low Fat Diet and Lost Forty Pounds!_, will notice that this is starting to look like the Careful Carb Diet. Yep. That is, indeed, about what I'd recommend for kids -- plenty of protein, moderate amounts of healthy fats, and a couple-few servings a day of low impact carbs.
What might that look like as a day's worth of menus? Let's dolly up for a closer look.
If you're from a family that actually eats an old fashioned, cooked breakfast, a reasonable breakfast would be eggs, and maybe a sausage or some ham, and a piece of fruit if you want. NO juice. NO muffins, toaster pastry, cold cereal, white bread toast, bagels, or anything like that.
If you're the kind of kid who would never get up and get ready for school early enough to actually cook and eat a breakfast like that, here's what you do: stick 3 individually wrapped string cheeses and a piece of fruit in your book pack, and eat them on the bus. You could do this with a couple of hard boiled eggs, instead. Or you could have a protein shake -- milk and protein powder, with some strawberries, or some cocoa powder or vanilla or something, and some artificial sweetener (Splenda tastes best) put through the blender with a few ice cubes. Fast, easy, and tasty.
This high protein breakfast is essential -- it will make you less hungry all day long. Further, you'll have more energy, feel more cheerful, and do better in classes. Pretty powerful stuff.
It's probably safest to take your lunch. Last I checked, school lunches were loaded with stuff like white flour buns, and macaroni, and junk like that. If you can get a couple of plain hamburger patties, or some other piece of plain meat, plus a salad or some veggies, fine. But if you can't, take your lunch.
You could take a plastic container of salad with plenty of meat, eggs, or cheese mixed in -- ham is good in salads, so is chicken or leftover steak, or canned tuna. Use real dressing, not fat free -- the fat free stuff is loaded with sugar. You could take tuna salad, with plenty of veggies in it, and real mayo -- you could even stuff that into half a whole wheat pita bread, with some extra lettuce and tomato, maybe a few sprouts. (Good idea -- take the tuna salad and the pita bread separately, and stuff your sandwich just before you eat it. Keeps the bread from getting soggy. If you take lettuce and tomato in a baggie, your lettuce won't get limp, either.) I like chicken salad, too. You could also take a leftover piece of meat or chicken or something from dinner the night before. Or you could have natural peanut butter (the kind made just with peanuts and a little salt -- stuff like Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan have added sugar. You can tell the natural stuff because it has oil on the top, and you have to stir it up before you use it.) on that pita, but jelly has a lot of sugar, and what's a peanut butter sandwich without jelly? If you don't have the whole wheat pita with lunch, you could have another piece of fruit instead.
This is the meal where having your folks cooperation will be most important, since it's the meal you're most likely to eat with your family. You'll want to discuss the whole thing with them, of course, and get their support. (I find it hard to believe that any reasonable parent would have a problem with their kid saying to them, "Mom, Dad, I want to eat healthier. Can you help?" Still, not all parents are reasonable, I guess.) It's also a good idea to volunteer to help with the cooking and shopping -- after all, the cook gets to help make the decisions, right? And if you're asking for their help, it's only fair that you help them, too.
The big thing that will make dinner easier for you is if the protein -- the meat, poultry, fish, whatever -- can be served separately from any starchy stuff, like noodles, rice, or potatoes. For instance, if your family is having spaghetti and meatballs, you could just have meatballs with sauce and cheese, and not eat the spaghetti. You could have a small serving -- a "small serving" is a half a cup -- of whole wheat pasta if you wanted, though. (We're hoping you can convince whoever does your grocery shopping to buy spaghetti sauce with no corn syrup in it!) With a big salad, meat balls with sauce and cheese is actually a really nice meal; I've had it often myself. If everyone is having, say, tacos, you could have beef taco filling on a salad, or maybe eat just one corn tortilla -- if you want beans for your carb instead, that's okay, just have a couple of spoonfuls, not a lot, and skip the tortilla.
Of course, if your family is having stuff like steak, burgers, chicken, things like that, and a vegetable or salad, with the potatoes or noodles as a separate dish, it's pretty easy; just have the meat and the vegetable and the salad. Again, you could have a small serving of brown rice or whole wheat pasta, or even a small potato.
Why do I keep insisting on whole wheat pita, whole wheat pasta, brown rice? Because they affect your blood sugar differently than white bread, white pasta, and white rice. They won't make you store fat as much, and they won't make you hungry again right away. One of the big reasons for avoiding carbs and eating protein and healthy fats instead is that it makes you far less hungry! Anyway, the whole wheat stuff and brown rice have a lot more vitamins and fiber (actually, the fiber is part of the reason they're easier on your blood sugar.)
What do you do about going out to eat with friends? Seems to me the most common things for kids to go eat is either fast food burgers, or pizza. If you go to McDonald's, you can do what I do -- get a Quarter Pounder with cheese, without the bun, and get a garden salad, too. Then slap the burger right on top of the salad, and eat the whole thing together, with a fork. Again, be careful about fat free dressings! And remember that ketchup is loaded with sugar, too.
If you're going out for pizza, here's the trick -- order thin crust pizza with extra cheese, and all the vegetables and/or meat you want -- peppers, onions, olives, sausage, pepperoni, whatever you like. Then peel the toppings off the crust and scarf 'em down leaving the crust behind! The crust is basically white bread, and has very little nutritional value. And the cheese and sauce and stuff is what tastes best anyway!
How about snacks? Obviously cookies, chips, pretzels, and other junk are out. Try peanuts, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds if you want something salty/crunchy -- and if you get them still in the shell, you're less likely to over eat on them. Almonds are good, too. Vegetables with dip are a fine snack, too, or celery stuffed with natural peanut butter or cream cheese. Speaking of which, cheese is a good snack as well, but skip the white flour crackers. If you want something that's a lot like chips, pork rinds are good. They sound really unhealthy, but actually they have quite a bit of protein, and less fat than potato chips, not that I think you should be eating a low fat diet.
There are some foods that are traditionally considered "diet foods" that you should beware of! Yogurt, for one. Most yogurt is simply full of sugar. If you really like yogurt, you can get plain yogurt and stir in some real, unsweetened fruit, (unsweetened, frozen strawberries that have been thawed out are a good choice, because they're kind of mushy and stir in well) or a spoonful (NOT several spoonfuls!) of all-fruit preserves. You'll need to consider this one of your 1-3 carb servings for the day, though, okay? Even plain yogurt has 12 grams of carb in a cup, and the fruit will add some more. Stay away from low fat and fat free stuff, too. Generally the manufacturers put a ton of sugar and chemicals in this stuff to make it taste okay.
If you're dying for sweets, you could have sugar-free gelatin with real whipped cream (No sugar! Add a little artificial sweetener and vanilla before you whip it.), or one of my sugar free dessert recipes. There are sugar-free fudge pops (a lot like Fudgesicles) at many big grocery stores, and sugar free ice pops, too. Or you could make sugar-free instant pudding -- grown up low carbers make this with heavy cream, because it has fewer carbs than milk. You could probably get away with the few extra carbs from the milk, if you prefer. (By the way, you might want to know that there's at least some evidence that eating a lot of sugar can stunt your growth. The release of growth hormone is affected by your blood sugar level, and of course eating tons of sugar messes that up. I've wondered for a long time if one of the reasons I'm the shortest member of my short family is at least in part because I ate so much sugar when I was going through my adolescent growth spurt.) And if you can get sugar free chocolate fudge flavored soda, try chilling it well, and then pouring it over a couple of tablespoons of cream -- yum!
By the way -- when you stop eating sugary, starchy junk and start eating protein and healthy fats, with just a little of the carbs that are easiest on your body, you'll probably discover that you're a lot less hungry than you used to be. In one experiment with teenaged boys, for example, the boys who ate a high protein breakfast like I've recommended in this article were so much less hungry that they spontaneously ate 81% less than the boys who had instant oatmeal for breakfast! Be prepared to be less hungry, and don't eat just for something to do or because other people are.
One other thing -- I'd really recommend that you take a good multiple vitamin and mineral supplement, especially to make sure you get enough calcium. You'll be getting more vitamins and minerals eating this way than most kids do eating a lot of sugary, starchy, processed junk, but still, an "insurance policy" never hurts.
If you're an obese kid, you have my heartfelt sympathy! I was fat by the time I was 8 or 10, and I know just how ugly and nasty kids can be about this stuff -- even meaner than grown ups are, and grown ups can be pretty mean about weight. In particular, I was pretty fat my freshman year of high school, and if there's a better definition of "hell" than "Fat at age 14", I'm not sure what it is.
Looking back, however, it was to some degree my own fault. I was very badly addicted to sugar, just as much as people are addicted to cigarettes or alcohol or cocaine. I actually used to steal money to buy candy, which tells you just how addicted I was. Sometimes it seemed like sugar was the whole meaning of my life! If you're reading this, and you feel like it describes you, you need to ask a concerned grown up for help. And remember -- it really is an addiction. You're not crazy, it's a biochemical reaction. You can break that addiction. I know. I did it.
One other thing: I've gotten email from kids who want me to tell them how to lose weight, but then when they tell me how tall they are, and how much they weigh, they're not fat at all! They just don't look like the lollipop girls on TV. (You know -- stick body, big head?) I hope I can get through to you when I tell you that a size 9 is NOT FAT, unless you're four feet tall. Furthermore, if you're a girl hitting puberty, you're supposed to be getting curves. It's called physical maturity. Please don't starve yourself -- being unnaturally thin will not make everything in your life okay, and girls die that way all too often.
Anyway, I had a good friend who was anorexic in high school. You know what happened? She was the only girl in her family who never developed a full bust. Now that would be a bummer.