What you need to know to improve your child’s gut health

“Follow your gut” is an old adage that turns out to hold a nugget of truth. Recent research shows that children’s gut health could have a significant impact on their growing bodies and minds.

According Katya Gerwein, MDa pediatrician with Stanford Children’s Health“Your gut health affects everything. It affects your mental health, such as contributing to anxiety and depression. It affects your risk of heart disease. It seems to affect your brain function and your ability to concentrate,” says Indeed, the intestine is home to billions of microscopic bacteria and viruses that make up a microbiome.Usually, these “insects” are useful and help us stay healthy.

The microbiome and your health

Venus Kalami, a clinical nutritionist at Stanford Children’s Health, knows a lot about how the foods we eat affect our health. “Our gut microbiome is the garden of bacteria, fungi, and other small creatures that together help influence our gut health and overall health,” she says. “The gut microbiome is attracting growing interest in the research community and among the public, in part because it is a factor in our health that we can directly influence through what we eat.”

Although there are microbiomes throughout the body, those in the gut are especially important. “There’s a certain set that tends to live in people’s mouths, a certain set that tends to live in people’s guts, a certain set that tends to live on people’s skin,” explains the Dr Gerwin. “They help us digest food. They help us ferment things. We have evolved to live with them as part of our beings for millions of years.

Using nutrition to promote gut health

Since what we eat affects our gut health and microbiome, Kalami recommends eating a varied diet that focuses on whole foods rather than processed meals as a good starting point. “Generally speaking, our internal army of good bacteria loves variety and different types of fiber from various plant-based foods,” she shares. “The population and diversity of various friendly gut bacteria can also be altered by eating foods naturally rich in probiotics like yogurt, kefir, and other fermented foods. … You may not realize it, but fruits, the vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and yogurt you eat directly fuel your overall health, but especially that of your gut microbiome.

While some parents may worry that their children will complain about a plate full of veggies, it’s essential to offer them some. “It seems important to give kids a variety of healthy foods early on and not worry if they don’t eat them sometimes,” says Dr. Gerwein. “Your job is to offer it.” Even if they don’t eat it, you can model healthy eating for them, and they’ll get the hang of it.

Dr. Gerwein suggests adding gut-friendly foods along with their current favorites to help ease the transition. “You can always put a small amount of mac and cheese with your lentil curry and with your broccoli and mayonnaise. Don’t say, ‘Oh, you have to eat this to eat that.’ Just turn it off. No comments, no pressure.

Focus on foods instead of supplements

Dr. Gerwein encourages families to focus on real foods instead of supplements like probiotics. “I used to advise probiotic supplements, but the more data there is, the more I don’t know if they’re helpful,” she says. “In fact, it may be best to eat lots of what we call ‘prebiotic foods.’ Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods tend to create an atmosphere in which good bacteria will thrive.

According to Kalami, there are many easy ways to prioritize foods to support gut health and boost nutrition. “Instead of buying the same sandwich bread you buy every day, try buying a multigrain one with added seeds, and alternate between a variety of breads that contain different grains and seeds,” she advises. “Add different spices and herbs to your food. Add a fruit and/or vegetable to every meal or snack, and never underestimate the power of pre-cut and pre-chopped fruits and vegetables.

Know when to call a professional

If finding creative ways to improve nutrition is too much pressure, Kalami recommends seeking help from a registered dietitian/nutritionist. “Try to identify the barriers that prevent you from having a varied diet, such as limited time, money and resources, and reverse engineer accordingly to make your diet and lifestyle sustainable for you. If you need more support in this regard, working with a dietitian/nutritionist can be a huge help,” she says.

For some children, nutrition alone isn’t enough to solve their gut problems, according to Dr. Gerwein. “If they’re constipated or have profuse diarrhea, that could be problematic,” she says. “But often it’s a bit like lead paint: you won’t necessarily see any signs. You’re not necessarily going to be able to tell from the surface. Repeated complaints of stomach pain and intestinal changes are signs that it’s time to see your pediatrician.

Learn more about gut health in »5 ways to improve your child’s gut health.”

For more advice from Dr Gerwein and Venus Kalami, see “COVID-19 and Influenza: A Q&A with Drs. Roshni Mathew and Katya Gerwein” and “Eating Well with Celiac Disease”.

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