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The truth about feeding paleo to babies.

Last week, a book publisher announced they would not publish a paleo cookbook for babies after experts expressed serious safety concerns. Today, nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan weighs in on the debate.

We get the science behind the diet.

After all the uproar in media last week over authorities stepping in to prevent a Paleo for babies book being published in its current form, I thought it timely to discuss the nutrition science of infant nutrition and whether or not a Paleo diet is suitable, desirable or dangerous.

Let’s start with the most controversial aspect – the proposed alternative baby formula consisting of a bone broth (i.e. stock) with added liver amongst other ingredients.

Now for most of us, liver is a highly nutritious food and many would undoubtedly benefit from adding it to their diet. But not everyone. During pregnancy women are advised to avoid liver due to the extremely high levels of vitamin A, which can cause deformities in the unborn child. This is well-established science and back in Paleo days gone by our savvy ancestors may well have worked this out for themselves.

So can babies eat liver? Well, yes they can. Our Australian Infant Feeding Guidelines list liver amongst suitable foods that can be given to babies from around six months (exclusive breast feeding is recommended before then). It is around this time that babies need to get more iron than they obtain from breast milk and liver is indeed an excellent source of iron.

Pete Evan’s Paleo cookbook.

The concern however with this ‘Paleo formula’ is the quantity of liver and the frequency it would be fed to the baby. Consider that half a cooked chicken liver (about 10g) contains almost double the upper limit recommended for vitamin A for an infant aged 6-12 months. Lamb liver is even higher with the same quantity providing 4.5 times what is considered the safe upper limit.

You can see that while a small quantity of liver once or twice a week as part of a mixed meal might be a wonderful nutrient boost, drinking a liver-rich broth daily could be extremely dangerous. Amongst other problems, chronic vitamin A toxicity can cause bone abnormalities. Interestingly these have been found in fossil remains of early humans and thought to be due to too much vitamin A.

Read more: What did the caveman people have against potatoes?

There is also currently a spotlight on protein recommendations for infants. I will soon be the Master of Ceremonies for a research symposium where experts are presenting their research showing that excess protein in infancy leads to a greater risk of being overweight later in life. Just read that again. In an age where we seem to be obsessed with protein as the magic bullet to weight control and good health this should stop us short. Giving babies and young kids a high protein diet is not appropriate and potentially damaging to their long-term health.

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Consider that human breast milk is higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein than most other mammals. Human babies need more carbohydrate to meet the high glucose demands of the fast growing, big human brain. Furthermore over the course of the first year of the baby’s life the protein content of the mother’s breast milk declines and the carbohydrate increases. If you choose not to, or cannot, breast-feed it’s essential that an appropriate formula is given instead as these are modified to match as closely the nutrition of breast milk as possible, including the calcium required for the fast bone growth during infancy.

To simply eliminate dairy altogether is not what nature intended. Before modern formula, babies unable to be fed from their mother’s milk would have been fed by another mother, or would most likely have died.

Of course a Paleo diet need not be high protein, but I fear it is for most as they simply cut out grains, legumes and dairy and replace with animal foods. An adult can probably cope with this no problem, but an infant or young child is an altogether different matter.

Babies and kids can certainly thrive without these foods if adequate care was taken to replace them with other suitable alternatives. But, in the absence of allergies or intolerances, why make things more difficult?

Why not instead put your focus on helping your child to develop an appreciation of a wide range of whole foods from all the food groups and remember to avoid added sugar and salt. And if you do suspect any kind of dietary problem, seek help from a qualified health professional such as an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) with the nutrition science expertise required to ensure the nutritional adequacy of any diet.

For more help you can visit:

NHMRC: Infant feeding guideline summary

Nutrition Australia: Infant nutrition resource

Eat For Health: Infant brochure

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