I know how mums like me can be so particular about their children’s health, even more so today. But while we are preoccupied with their immunisation schedules or at-home workout routine, we might be missing out on something equally important, like their tummy. Experts say that we need to optimise good gut health in kids while they are still young. Here are the whys and hows.
Importance of Good Gut Health
But first, what does a healthy gut do for our kids? We know its primary role, and that is to digest the food that we eat. However, it has plenty of other essential functions and health benefits:
- It allows nutrient absorption. The gut processes the food our kids eat for the absorption of nutrients that they need. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are some of the essential nutrients that support their healthy growth.
- It ensures waste excretion. Food contains indigestible components, and their role is twofold. One is that they serve as food for the friendly bacteria in the gut. And second, they help with the removal of waste from the body. In turn, our kids gain protection from various health and digestive issues like stomach ache, irregular bowel habits, constipation and sleep problems.
- It boosts immunity. A large per cent of good bacteria in our bodies live in the gut. Aside from aiding in digestion and waste elimination, they also play a crucial role in reducing the risk of illness and infection.
Ways to Improve Gut Health in Children
A happy gut is a happy child indeed. And it is then our role to keep it that way. Strengthening digestive health will take time, though. But what’s important is that we start early, ideally from the prenatal period to childhood. These kid-friendly diet and lifestyle adjustments might help.
Introduce Your Kids to Probiotics
An effective way to develop a healthy gut in kids is to increase the beneficial bacteria in their intestinal tract. To do this, you need to incorporate more good gut health foods into the diet. Fermented foods like yoghurt and kefir milk drink are excellent sources of probiotics. Kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables are also examples. These contain live and active cultures that can help populate the gut with good bacteria. Here are some points you need to keep in mind:
- Check the label before buying yoghurt products. Look for those with healthy bacteria strains like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium when food shopping.
- Avoid yoghurt food items with high sugar and salt. Most yoghurt products for kids, like pretzels and dressings, are often too sweet. Some have zero live cultures, too.
- Start small and be creative when serving probiotic foods. Some grown-ups are not even fans of unsweetened, tangy yoghurt. So, introduce it gradually to your kids. A good tip is to mix it with something else. For example, I use yoghurt in place of mayo for sandwiches. I also use it as baked potato topping or mix it in my pancake batter. You can make yoghurt parfait, smoothies or popsicles with fresh fruit for dessert, too.
- Choose a balanced diet over supplements. Probiotic supplements are an option. But you need to consult your doctor first before giving them to children.
Serve Kids Foods Rich in Fibre and Polyphenol
Building a healthy microbiome is not enough. We need to keep the gut strong and stable by feeding the good bacteria with foods they love. Unfortunately, that does not include chicken nuggets, cookies or sweetened beverages. Highly processed foods contain lots of sugar, fats and sodium that will only disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut.
To maintain good gut health, we need to add fruits, vegetables, oats, whole wheat, beans and nuts to our kids’ meals. That’s because beneficial bacteria feed on the indigestible fibre that these prebiotic foods have. Research also shows that dietary polyphenols help in healthy gut maintenance. Cherries, grapes and berries are some options your kids will love.
Now, if you are having trouble giving plant-based foods to your fussy eaters, start with options that they know first. For example, serve veggie sticks with dip or grilled cheese with whole wheat bread or tortilla. You can also prep potato, pear or apple with the skin on to increase their fibre intake. These tips to make veggies appealing to kids are handy, too.
Go for Smaller Meals and Lots of Fluids
Our little ones tend to feel overwhelmed when they need to finish huge meal servings. But we can always make portions smaller and mealtimes more frequent. This way, they are more likely to finish everything and feel energised throughout the day. Their gut will also stay active, refreshed and happy when processing food in small amounts.
Sufficient fluids are also significant in maintaining good gut health. As we increase our kids’ fibre intake to feed the beneficial microbes, the gastrointestinal tract will need water to process them. So, make sure your kids drink enough glasses of fluids every day. You can also serve fresh fruit juices, fruit-infused water or water-rich foods like watermelon and cucumber.
Encourage Outdoor Play
Believe it or not, exposing kids to mud, pets, dirt, and germs helps build a healthy gut microbiome and boost their immune systems. So, teach your children basic hygiene practices, but there is no need for excessive cleaning. Let the kids have fun outside and get enough sunshine. Ask them to help out in gardening or cleaning the yard, too. These activities are not only fun but also helpful in developing natural immunity.
Avoid Non-Essential Use of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are readily available to cure a myriad of diseases caused by bacteria. However, easy access often leads to abuse. Some parents even give them to kids incorrectly to cure viral infections. More importantly, antibiotics cannot tell the difference between good and bad bacteria. They will eliminate even beneficial microbes, resulting in a long-term impact on your child’s gut.
So, avoid antibiotics as much as possible. Use them only when needed to prevent antibiotic resistance in children. Better yet, seek your paediatrician’s advice first, and do not self-medicate.
Work Together with Your Doctor
Your child’s food intake is as important as the end product. So, whenever possible, monitor your child’s poop and bowel movement frequency. Doing so will give you crucial alerts if something’s wrong. And if you observe anything out of the ordinary, discuss it with your paediatrician. It will protect our kids from severe illness and free us from worries!