You've already heard plenty about probiotics. Those are the "good" bacteria in foods like yogurt that can help populate the gut with healthy microbes—which may help strengthen the immune system and ease tummy troubles. Now the buzz is about prebiotics and why you and your kids need them just as much.
Prebiotics are food for the healthy microbes in the gut. They help nourish beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus (found in yogurt) so they can thrive. They occur naturally in certain foods like bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, and whole wheat. Breast milk is also naturally rich in prebiotics, and they're added to some kinds of baby formula.
Now manufacturers are isolating prebiotics from plants and adding them to foods. You may see this on the label as "chicory root extract", "inulin", or "prebiotic fiber" on ingredient lists for yogurt like Activia, light ice cream like Halo Top, cereals like GoLean and Happy Inside, and bars such as Fiber One and some varieties of KIND. You can also find prebiotics in fiber supplements.
Added prebiotics like this can be a good thing. For starters, they deliver much-needed fiber. Constipation is a major problem for kids (and adults!), and more fiber can help relieve it. There's also research showing that prebiotics may make it easier for the body to absorb calcium, which helps kids build bone. And some studies have found they may even help regulate hunger and fullness hormones in children who are overweight and obese.
But be warned: Like all fibers, prebiotics can bother your child's tummy if they're not used to them. If you're including any of these fiber-added foods, go slowly (in other words, rethink splitting that whole pint of light ice cream with your kid!). And watch out for symptoms like gas, bloating, and belly pain. Wondering how much prebiotic fiber is in a food? If it's in the first few ingredients, it's probably a rich source and may tend to bother their belly more, especially in bigger quantities.
If you're not including any of these foods, getting plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains can help your child get fiber--including prebiotics--too.
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 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. 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.