“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 to Katya Gerwein, MD, a 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 for heart disease. It seems to affect the way your brain works and your ability to focus,” she says. This is because the gut is home to trillions of microscopic bacteria and viruses that make up a microbiome. Usually these “bugs” are helpful and help us stay healthy.
The microbiome and your health
Venus Kalami, a clinical nutritionist with 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 critters that together help influence our gut health and overall health,” she says. “The gut microbiome has been of increasing interest in the research world and amongst the public, partly because it is a factor of our health that we can directly influence by what we eat.”
While there are microbiomes throughout the body, the ones in the gut are particularly important. “There’s a certain set that tends to live in people’s mouths, a certain set that tends to live in people’s gut, a certain set that tends to live on people’s skin,” explains Dr. Gerwein. “They help us digest food. They help us ferment things. We’ve evolved to live with them as part of our beings over 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 over processed meals as a good place to start. “Generally speaking, our internal army of friendly bacteria love variety and different kinds of fibers from various plant-based foods,” she shares. “The population and diversity of the various friendly gut bacteria can also be modified by eating naturally probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, and other fermented foods. … You may not realize it, but the fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and yogurt you eat are directly fueling your overall health, but especially that of your gut microbiome.”
While some parents may worry that their kids will complain about a plate full of veggies, it’s vital to offer them. “It seems to be important to feed kids a variety of food that is healthy from the beginning and not to worry if they don’t eat it 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 eventually they will catch on.
Dr. Gerwein suggests adding gut-friendly foods along with their current favorites to help ease the transition. “You can still put out a small amount of mac and cheese along with your lentil curry and along with your broccoli and mayo. Don’t say, ‘Oh, you have to eat this in order to eat that.’ Just put it out. No comments, no pressure.”
Focus on food over supplements
Dr. Gerwein encourages families to focus on real food rather than supplements like probiotics. “I used to actually advise probiotic supplements, but the more data that there is, it’s unclear to me if they are helpful,” she says. “It actually may be better just to eat a lot of what we call ‘prebiotic foods.’ Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods tend to create an atmosphere in which good bacteria will grow.”
According to Kalami, there are lots of simple ways to prioritize foods to support gut health and boost nutrition. “Instead of the same sandwich bread you buy daily, try buying one that’s multigrain with added seeds, and rotate through a variety of breads featuring different grains and seeds,” she advises. “Add different spices and herbs to your food. Add a fruit and/or vegetable to each meal or snack, and never underestimate the power of precut and prechopped fruits and vegetables.”
Know when to bring in a professional
If finding creative ways to improve nutrition is too much pressure, Kalami recommends getting assistance from a registered dietitian/nutritionist. “Try identifying the barriers that keep you from having a varied diet, like 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, working with a registered dietitian/nutritionist can be an enormous help,” she says.
For some kids, nutrition alone is not enough to solve their gut issues, according to Dr. Gerwein. “If they’re constipated or having profuse diarrhea, then that might be problematic,” she says. “But often, it’s kind of like lead paint: You’re not necessarily going to see any signs. You’re not necessarily going to be able to tell from the surface.” Repeated complaints of stomachache and bowel changes are signs that it’s time to check in with your pediatrician.
Read more about gut health in “5 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Gut Health.”