When it comes to supporting the health of our kids, one often overlooked aspect is the gut. The gut plays a critical role in overall well-being, especially when thinking about our kids.
Our gut is made up of billions of microbes, which not only help with digesting what we eat and drink, but also impact numerous other areas of the body, including our immune system and brain. Our guts function best when we have a healthy, diverse, and balanced gut microbiome; however, imbalances in our gut microbiome can lead to health issues. This is why supporting our gut health and the gut microbiome from an early age can have lasting impacts on health and well-being.
Let’s first talk about why gut health matters for kids:
- Digestion and Absorption of Nutrients: Having a healthy gut ensures that you are digesting and absorbing important nutrients that are especially critical during development.
- Immune System Support: A huge portion of our immune system resides in our gut. By supporting gut health and the gut microbiome, it can help foster a responsive and resilient immune system—which can mean fewer infections and illnesses.
- May Help with Neurological Function: Research has shown that there is a strong tie between our gut and our brain (gut-brain axis). While it’s still being researched, supporting gut health and fostering a diverse microbiome may improve neurological function/development and even mood.
Supporting a healthy gut is honestly not that complicated. Some of the most impactful things that we can do to support our gut health (and our kids’) are the simplest. Healthy diet and lifestyle recommendations are to:
- Include probiotic-rich dairy products: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that, when ingested, can support the growth and maintenance of a diverse gut microbiome. Dairy provides an additional bonus of supplying several nutrients that are essential for child development, like protein and calcium. Dairy foods are a win-win!
- Add in fiber-rich foods: Foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits are high in fiber and prebiotics. Prebiotics are food components that help feed the “good” bacteria in our gut. Try kid-friendly recipes like this Peanut Butter Whip with Apples featuring yogurt and fiber-rich apples.
- Encourage regular physical activity: Research has shown that individuals who engage in physical activity tend to have a “healthier” and more diverse gut microbiome. Additionally, engaging in regular movement can help regulate bowel movements too—which is helpful for kids that may struggle with constipation.
- Stay hydrated: Hydration is critical for supporting gut health. Without adequate fluid, your digestive system has to work harder to move things along. It’s best to encourage water intake throughout the day to help support regular digestion and bowel movements.
Nurturing your child’s gut health can help lay the groundwork for a lifetime of health and well-being. Taking the recommendations listed above are some of the most impactful places to start. Remember that each child is unique, and if you ever have concerns about their gut health it never hurts to consult with a pediatrician and/or a registered dietitian.
Jessie Hoffman, PhD, RD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at Winthrop University. She holds a Masters in Nutrition from UNC-Greensboro and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Kentucky. After completing her Ph.D., she completed her dietetic internship at Iowa State University. Her dietetic and research expertise are in gastrointestinal conditions and the gut microbiome.
Currently, her research focuses on the impact of dietary and lifestyle factors on gastrointestinal health and the gut microbiome. Additionally, Jessie is passionate about scientific and nutritional science communication and does so regularly through social media. From breaking down nutrition science to busting myths that are so prevalent in today’s society, she strives to empower individuals to become responsible consumers of social media content and experts on their own bodies.