Gut health is a hot topic for adults right now – with supplements, probiotics and even fermented food inching toward the mainstream. But gut health is important for children too. From a young age, children have trillions of bacteria making up their gut microbiota. And one of the most powerful tools in building and maintaining optimal gut health is diet.
The gut plays a big role in kids’ overall wellbeing. The connection with improved digestion and immune function is well known, and newer research also draws a connection between the gut microbiota and the central nervous system and brain.
What Influences Gut Health
Genetics play a big role and the baseline starts in utero. The makeup of early gut microbiota depends on what mom eats, how baby is delivered and breastfeeding. Factors that can compromise a healthy gut microbiota can include stress and medication such as antibiotics.
The gut microbiota evolves through infancy and early childhood and parents continue to play a role through the foods they introduce. Understanding the role of nutrition can be a way to positively influence gut health – or even help to repair a compromised gut.
Foods to Limit
Diets high in refined sugars have been shown to harm the structure and function of the microbiota. While there’s no need to completely eliminate sugar, the World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10% of calories should come from added sugars (glucose, fructose and sucrose added to food and drink, or naturally-occurring sugars in refined foods such as honey, syrup or fruit juice).
Diets high in sulfites, preservatives used to maintain food color and prolong shelf life, have also been shown to have a negative impact. When reading labels, look out for sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfate, sodium and potassium bisulfites, and metabisulfites.
Foods that Can Trigger Poor Gut Health
Many children are sensitive to certain foods and ingredients – the most common being gluten, cow milk, soy and eggs. These foods can cause reactions such as bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea and can negatively impact gut health.
Keeping a diet diary for one week can help connect foods with symptoms. If a trigger is identified, remove it from the diet for one week to see if symptoms decrease. The good news is that there are lots of great-tasting choices now available for children with food sensitivities such as gluten free bread or cereal and goat milk dairy.
Foods that Promote Gut Health
Children are resilient and their gut microbiota responds quickly to positive change. To support your child’s healing microbes, avoid trigger foods and continue to emphasize whole foods, free from added sugar.
Dietary fiber also plays a critical role in feeding and cultivating healthy bacteria. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s no need to count fiber grams as long as they are getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and other fiber-rich foods.
Some of the best sources of dietary fiber include: fruits (keep the skin on where appropriate), vegetables (especially dark green), beans (legumes), starchy vegetables, whole grains, and psyllium and flax.
Finally, fermented foods such as natto, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut even in small amounts are also worth considering. They are full of probiotics, which promote gut health by feeding healthy bacteria.
By offering a variety of whole foods and keeping an eye on labels, parents can positively contribute to their children’s gut microbiota. By modeling healthy eating, we can improve our children’s health and foster positive dietary habits for life.