Do low-carb diets work for kids?

A new study that looked at which diets work best for kids found that compared to portion control and low-glycemic index (GI) diets, low-carb diets work just as well for weight loss, but are more difficult for kids to stick with long-term.

The study also showed that low-GI diets, which promote foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains yielded similar weight-loss success, but showed greater long-term compliance a year later. This diet is part of the innovative clinical research conducted by David Ludwig, MD, MPH, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital, and its Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Clinic.

Since long-term habits are the foundation of healthy living, Ludwig and his colleagues focus on choosing the right combination of foods to limit hunger and overeating, rather than encouraging people to eliminate entire classes of nutrients, like carbohydrates. Ultimately, this method makes it easier for a child to accommodate his or her personal and cultural preferences, allowing the diet to more easily become a lifestyle.

“When you line up biology and behavior, you can accomplish greater results with less work,” says Ludwig. “On a bicycle, if you’re in the wrong gear, you can pedal a whole lot and still not get very far. When you find the right gear, however, suddenly that effort pushes you forward more efficiently.” The same is true for choosing the right weight-loss plan for a child.

Carb filled snacks that are easily available can hurt low-carb diet attempts

But as the study’s findings show, there are plenty of obstacles that keep kids and families from sticking to healthy habits long-term.

“The greatest obstacle that families face today is our toxic environment, which is optimally designed to cause weight gain, heart disease and diabetes,” he says. “The food industry spends billions of dollars a year to make the highest calorie, lowest quality products look attractive to children and adults.”

The challenge is even more intense for inner city and low-income families, who may live in “food deserts” where fast food restaurants and convenience stores prevail, and quick access to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains is limited.

The solution, Ludwig says, is to create a nutritional safe zone at home, thereby reducing outside temptations.

“Each family has to work toward making the home a sacred healthy environment,” says Ludwig. “It’s OK to enjoy a treat once in a while, but we should make the home a place where the only foods available are healthy and nutritious.” Ludwig encourages parents to model healthy behaviors at home as well, and set healthy examples from which even lean family members can benefit.

To help with the process, Ludwig suggests consulting with your family’s doctor, psychologist and nutritionist, who can create a personalized approach for weight loss. Boston Children’s Hospital’s OWL clinic does just that, by offering a multidisciplinary team to provide patients with customized, age-appropriate weight management at both the Children’s Hospital Longwood campus and its suburban location in Waltham, MA. This summer, the center will also expand to Peabody.

David Ludwig, MD, PhD

For families whose children have less significant weight problems and may not need intense personalized therapy, Ludwig’s book “Ending the Food Fight” translates the science of the OWL approach into a practical nine-week program for families to follow at home.

For more information on Boston Children’s Hospital’s work on preventing obesity and helping children achieve healthy weight, visit the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital.

Read more about the future of personalized weight loss, and watch a video about one patient’s experience at the OWL program.