Gut Health Needs To Start In Childhood. Here's Exactly What A Kids' Nutrition Expert Recommends

Photo: Léa Jones

You've probably heard the term "gut health" quite a bit over the past few years, and maybe you've made a concerted effort to take care of your own gut health. But how much do parents need to know about their kids' gut health, and what can they do to ensure that their child has a healthy gut?

Your child’s gut health refers to the trillions of microbes living in their gastrointestinal tract. These microbes are made up of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The majority of the microbes are beneficial to their health, and in a flourishing gut, the beneficial bacteria will thrive, and the body will benefit. Dysbiosis results when there is an abnormal balance between the microbes and the body they inhabit and has been associated with obesity, malnutrition, irritable bowel disease, and neurological disorders.

The mechanisms that lead to optimal gut health are complex, and the truth is your kid's gut health is very much connected to his or her well-being. The diverse bacteria living in a child’s gut have the ability to protect them from agents that can cause disease, support the immune system, extract nutrients and energy from food, and affect a range of functions in a child’s body.

So, what should your child be eating for optimal gut health? While there isn't a single magic "superfood" that guarantees optimal gut health, one powerful tool parents have to ensure a diverse microbiome is teaching their kids to appreciate a range of whole foods. Here are my recommendations:

Sauerkraut and kimchi

These "living" fermented foods have the ability to pass through the digestive tract with the beneficial bacteria intact. Offering these probiotic foods at a young age will allow your child’s taste buds to develop interest. A great way to add these to your child’s routine is to have a small bowl on the table as a condiment at every meal or consider creative ways to add it to a favorite family dish. Allow your child to see you enjoying these fermented foods—if you make them a consistent part of the routine, you might find your child is willing to try them.

Another way to introduce your child to the zingy taste of fermented foods while you are working up to sauerkraut or kimchi is by incorporating the juice from fermented foods into your feeding routine. Try offering small tastes of the juice from your favorite fermented foods. You can also utilize these fermented juices to add flavor to a meal your family already enjoys. This is one way to train their palates to adjust to this flavor. Farmhouse Gut Shots in Ginger Beet or Classic Caraway are available at local natural food stores, and they're a great way to bring fermented juices into mealtime.

High-fiber foods

Fiber helps feed the beneficial bacteria that it needs to thrive and plays a role in maintaining normal digestion, which leads to overall health in a child’s digestive system. Unfortunately, the average American diet falls short on meeting the recommended daily dietary fiber. This is probably because in most cases, the more processed our food, the more we reduce the fiber content. Focusing on offering your child a range of whole, plant-based foods will increase their fiber intake and can lead to an increase in the good bugs in their microbiome.

So, which foods can help meet your child's needs? Here are a few:

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Beans

Beans are one of the strongest sources of fiber in the plant-based world and a relatively inexpensive source of fiber and protein.

Fruits and vegetables

These colorful foods give the good bugs plenty to snack on and also expose your child to a variety of vitamins and minerals that their body needs to thrive. The majority of these are high in fiber.

Nuts

Not only are nuts a nutrient-dense source of unsaturated fat and protein, but they're a strong source of fiber.

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Lentils

High in fiber, lentils have the ability to feed the thriving bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.

Flaxseeds

This functional food is a great fiber source for feeding beneficial bacteria. Consider adding ground flaxseeds to your child’s morning pancakes, smoothie, or baked goods. Not only will these little seeds nourish the microbes, but their omega-3 content makes them an ideal vegetarian option to support and grow a healthy brain.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics can be classified as fiber, but not every fiber is a prebiotic. The beneficial bacteria in the gut ferment prebiotic foods, and as a result, they feed the good bugs. They are not digested in the small intestine and have the ability to reach the colon, where they can be fermented by the gut microbes. Feeding the good bacteria prebiotics allows the good bugs to thrive, which leads to crowding out the bad bugs.

Here are a few beneficial prebiotic foods to try:

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Green bananas

Don’t be afraid of a little green when it comes to your bananas! Green bananas are an excellent prebiotic food.

Asparagus

This colorful prebiotic is an excellent way to feed your good bacteria.

Sunchokes

A root vegetable also known as a Jerusalem artichoke, sunchokes have a mild flavor and can be relatively easy to prepare. Toss these into your next round of roasted vegetables and increase your child’s prebiotic intake.

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Garlic, onions, and leeks

These prebiotic foods are easy additions and starters to many family-friendly meals and will feed the good bacteria.

Are you a mom interested in nutrition? Here's a complete guide to postpartum nutrition.

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