Your child's gut is a pretty important place. It's home to trillions of bacteria, and this gut "microbiome" can impact your child's immune system and even his long-term health, for better or for worse. Thankfully the makeup of the microbiome—the balance between good and bad bacteria—is something you can help influence with the foods and drinks you serve every day.
"We now understand that intestinal microbes play a role in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, obesity and more," says Kate Scarlata, a registered dietitian, expert on gut health, and author of The Low-FODMAP Diet Step by Step. "What we eat is key to the essential balance of microbes in our gut."
Unfortunately, many of the foods commonly eaten by kids (think chicken nuggets, cookies, and sugary drinks) can negatively affect the bacteria balance in the gut, ultimately increasing the risk of those serious health conditions, she says.
You can help turn things around by shifting to a diet built around mostly whole, healthy foods. Some foods are particularly good at improving gut health by boosting beneficial bugs and crowding out the bad kind that can make kids sick. Here are some that are especially gut-friendly:
Foods high in indigestible fiber: "Our gut microbes consume foods that we don't digest well," explains Scarlata. The beneficial bacteria in the gut thrive when they have access to carbohydrates that contain indigestible fibers like those found in:
Foods rich in polyphenols: These good bacteria also feed on polyphenols, natural plant compounds that are found foods such as:
Foods that work as probiotics: Some foods actually contain strains of beneficial bacteria that can help populate the digestive tract like:
A healthy diet is important to gut health for another reason: There's some evidence that certain ingredients found in ultra-processed foods, such as high fructose corn syrup and refined white flour, may negatively affect the gut's bacteria balance, says Scarlata. In fact, she says, animal research has found that switching from a healthy, plant-based diet to a high-fat, high-sugar, typically "Western" diet causes changes to the microbiome (for the worse) in just one day.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.