If you are a mom or have ever babysat kids (or been around one during lunch time), you understand that kids can be difficult eaters. They can be picky, don’t always eat on a timely schedule, and create a mess in the process. In American culture, it is common for children to eat less-then-ideal foods including fruit snacks, juices, processed lunch meats, or chicken nuggets. To entice a child to eat, we use artificial dyes and bright, exciting food packaging. For example, have you ever noticed the difference in packaging between children’s yogurt brands and a normal yogurt brand? As a busy parent, it’s easy to turn to quick meals, fast foods, and brands kids are excited to eat. However, the foods that we feed our children have a large impact on their small digestive systems.
Digestive systems are complicated, and as children grow their digestive systems are easily impressionable. Did you know that the bacteria in a child’s gut is transferred from the mother during birth? In fact, the microbes that “seed” the digestive system vary based on the type of birth and impact the development of the immune system.1 A child’s long-term health can be determined in just a few hours! It is important to consider the food we feed our children because their growing body is fragile.
The health of a child’s digestive system can be impacted by multiple factors including the bacteria that lives in the digestive tract itself, allergies, intolerances, or general digestive issues such as diarrhea.2 Dr. Mona Dave, pediatric gastroenterologist states, “Help your digestive system stay healthy by drinking lots of water and eating a healthy diet. Eating foods rich in fiber, and plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help your body grow properly and stay healthy.”3 Not sure where to start? Here are 3 ways you can promote a healthy digestive system for your little one.
Reduce added sugar
According to the CDC, children aged 6 years and older consumed about 14% of their daily total calories from added sugar in a 2003-2010 study.4 A later study between 2011-2014 found that 6 in 10 youth drank a sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day.5 Sugar can wreak havoc on the digestive system, promoting the growth of unwanted bacteria. There are two main types of bacteria that live in the human digestive system: firmicutes and bacteroidetes. Bacteroidetes love to consume sugar and an overgrowth of this bacteria allows the body to more efficiently store fat and encourage weight gain.6 Cut out added sugar in your child’s diet by reading the label on any packaged product. Packaged foods high in added sugar include yogurt, juices, cereals, sauces (ketchup, BBQ sauce, spaghetti sauce), and even pre-packaged soups. Read the ingredients before you purchase packaged foods and keep an eye out for the alternative names for sugar including corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fructose, dextrose, and lactose.7
Introduce fermented foods
Fermented foods are packed full of healthy bacteria that can diversity and improve your gut biome. Fermentation of food must be done using microorganisms, either yeasts or bacteria. Healthy bacteria, or probiotics, have been associated with numerous health benefits including improved digestion and immune function. Great foods you can introduce into their daily diet include plain (or lightly sweetened) yogurt, kefir, probiotic sour cream, natto, miso, and sauerkraut. If your little one is a picky eater, you can start by mixing in small amounts of new foods into their current diet. For example, you can create an easy ranch dip with plain Greek yogurt to pair with sliced vegetables or add miso paste to chicken noodle soup.
Engage in daily activity
The digestive system isn’t just impacted by diet but also by physical changes. For example, stress can bring gut function to a complete halt. In primitive times, slowing digestion in the face of a danger was beneficial as a way to preserve energy. You can physically improve digestion by movement. Low gut motility can be caused by physical inactivity and is easily corrected. At least 60 minutes of physical activity is recommended per day for children. The World Health Organization states, “For children and young people, physical activity includes play, games, sports, transportation, chores, recreation, physical education, or planned exercise, in the context of family, school, and community activities.”8 Lead by example and get moving!
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