What Influences Gut (Digestive) Health in Growing Children?
Created by Vandana Chawla Updated on Sep 27, 2019
Digestive health (Gut health) has gained importance in recent times. Various options of supplements, probiotics, and fermented foods are gaining in popularity. Digestive health is important for both adults as well as growing children. It plays a big role in children’s overall wellbeing. And their meals plays a key role in building and maintaining optimum digestive health. [Watch Video: How to Avoid Colic & Digestive Discomfort in Infants]
We are aware of the functioning of the digestive system, also called the GI tract (the gastrointestinal tract). It transports food from the mouth to the stomach, converts it into absorbable nutrients and stored energy, and then throws waste out of the body. Recent studies have indicated that the digestive system has an even bigger, more complex job than previously appreciated. It’s been linked to numerous other aspects of health that have nothing to do with digestion; most important ones being immunity, emotional stress, and chronic illnesses.
How Important Is Digestive Health in Your Growing Child?
A child has trillions of bacteria making up their digestive system (also called the digestive microbiota) from a very young age. These bacteria not only help in processing food but also help in maintaining homeostasis and overall well-being for the child. The make-up of bacteria and other microorganisms in the stomach and intestines, which makes up the human microbiome is the key in determining the overall health.
Boosting Immunity & Preventing Allergies - Healthy bacteria in the child’s digestive system helps in controlling the immune system, determining things including allergic reaction to any food and how effectively to fight off the infection-causing virus. Studies* have indicated the relationship between digestive bacteria and immunity. The interactions between the digestive system and the bacteria that are found in our intestines help control how our body responds to illness. Good digestive health(gut health)from an early age leads to good immunity for the child.
Preventing Non-communicable Diseases - A healthy Gut helps in regulating metabolism and thereby prevents weight gain. Keeping the digestive system healthy from a young age keeps metabolic functioning normal and healthy. This, in turn, helps in maintaining a healthy weight and in keeping diseases like Diabetes and cardiac disorders at bay.
Impact on Child’s Mood and Behavior - In addition to influencing digestion and immune function, there are research findings** which bring out that, digestive health can have a powerful impact on a child's mood and behavior. A healthy digestive system may help a child in managing stressful situations effectively, in reducing anxiety and in improving memory function. [Also Read: Ways to Deal with Digestion Problem in Breastfed Babies?]
What Influences Gut (Digestive) Health
Genetics play a very important role and the foundation is laid while the baby is in their mom’s womb. The makeup of the early digestive system depends on what the mom eats, how a baby is delivered and on breastfeeding. Factors like stress and medication such as antibiotics can compromise a healthy digestive system. The digestive system evolves through infancy and early childhood. Foods introduced in child’s meals play a crucial role across these stages. Foods can both trigger poor Digestive (Gut) health or boost Digestive (Gut) Health.
Foods That Can Cause Poor Digestive (Gut) Health
Diets high in white sugar or processed sugar can harm the digestive health. It does not mean that you need to eliminate sugar completely. World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that no more than 10% of calories should come from added sugars which include both natural and added sugar. Processed foods high in preservatives used to maintain food color or prolong shelf life have been shown to have a negative impact. When reading labels, look out for sulfur compounds like sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfate or sodium and potassium bisulfites and avoid such processed foods as much as you may for your child.
Foods Sensitivity & Poor Digestive (Gut) Health
Sensitivity to certain foods like gluten, cow milk, soy, eggs can cause reactions like bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea and this can negatively affect digestive health. Keeping a food diary for one week can help connect foods with some of these symptoms. If causative food is identified, remove it from your child’s meals for one week to see if the symptoms reduce. The best thing is that many alternative options, like gluten-free bread, cereal or traditional millets or dairy options are available nowadays. Hence you can replace these sensitive foods with alternatives to keep your child’s Digestive system healthy. 
Foods that Can Boost Gut Health
Following food types can boost your child's digestive health. Read here.
- Dietary fiber - These fibers provide healthy bacteria and help in improving Digestive Health. No need to count fiber grams as long as the child is getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and other fiber-rich foods including cereals. The best sources of dietary fiber include: fruits (keep the skin on where appropriate), vegetables (especially dark green), beans, dals, millets (ragi, bajra, jowar) starchy vegetables, whole wheat bread and cereals and nuts and seeds (almonds, cashew, walnuts, flax seeds, sunflower or pumpkin seeds). [Know: 10 Food Diet to Fight Against Constipation]
- Fermented foods - Such as Kefir, Probiotic added yogurt or home-made dahi are full of probiotics, which promote digestive health as they contain healthy bacteria. Plus, a wide variety of traditional fermented foods, like, Idli, Dosa, help to replenish the microflora of the digestive tract. These become even more important in today’s times when antibiotics are frequently prescribed for children, which harms the Digestive health of a child.
I hope you are now able to understand the role of nutrition in positively influencing Digestive health for a child. It can even help in repairing a compromised digestive system in children. Remember to offer a variety of whole foods and keep an eye on the labels. You can positively contribute to your child’s digestive health with this understanding and by following these handy tips. I believe that Healthy eating and Healthy feeding can improve each child’s health and inculcate positive eating habits for life.
*Martin R, Nauta AJ, Amor KB, Knippels LMJ, Knol J, Garssen J. Early life: gut microbiota and immune development in infancy. Benef Microbe 2010;1:367-82.
**Lisa M. Christian, Jeffrey D. Galley, Erinn M. Hade, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Claire Kamp Dush, Michael T. Bailey. Gut microbiome composition is associated with temperament during early childhood. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2015; 45: 118 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2014.10.018