Gut health for kids – what you need to know
I interviewed Jo Atkinson, a degree-qualified nutritional medicine practitioner who specialises in family health and a mum of three kids herself, on her top tips for gut health for kids.
What is the gut?
The gut includes both the anatomical aspect and what is within i.e. the mouth, stomach, intestines and all the way out, as well as the stomach acid, enzymes and gut microbiota (the bacteria found in that environment).
How do we know if we have a healthy gut?
The first thing to look at, especially for kids, is bowel movements. If you have a child who is having issues with constipation, diarrhoea or changing bowel movements, or you are seeing undigested food, mucous or blood, that is an indicator that something isn’t right.
I know once kids are toilet trained we don’t like to think about their poo, but I would encourage you to check because it is a really good sign of what is going on in their gut.
What we are aiming for is a regular – at least once a day – well-formed, solid bowel movement, that is easy to pass with very little undigested food, and no blood or mucous. If we know that is the norm then we know what to look for when it comes to the abnormal.
There can be a whole range of things that cause problems including parasites, food intolerances, and a lack of water, and again we have to go back to basics. For example, if the child is constipated, ask yourself have they had enough water, fruit, vegetables etc today? Or, if it is a chronic condition, that is where I would say get some help.
How might an unhealthy gut present itself: what symptoms might you see?
Gut health is really important to focus on for many different conditions such as eczema, behavioural and/or sleep problems, constipation, food intolerances and even autoimmune disorders.
This is because the gut plays a big role in the production of neurotransmitters and hormones. It is all linked and gut health affects all of those processes in the body.
All of the the symptoms I mentioned can be caused by an imbalance in the gut, or when the gut isn’t working well and is unable to eliminate things. I like to work from a perspective of gut health as a baseline; looking at what is happening there and then working outwards.
What is the number one thing we can do to improve gut health for kids?
I see a lot of parents who are feeling overwhelmed and have heard about gut health and tried various treatments or diets, and usually what I say to these parents is, you need to go back to basics. Yes, there are many different diets you can go on – elimination diets with foods to avoid or add in etc, but I encourage people to go back to basics; meat, vegetables, fruit and real, whole foods.
There are foods that the child may be reacting to, for example, dairy is a big one for eczema, and once you have realised there is a link there, you may then remove that food for a period of time and work on gut health and the immune system before slowly re-introducing that food.
I would never recommend that anyone try doing an elimination diet on their own; firstly because it can be overwhelming but also, I see a lot of kids who can only eat five or ten different foods because they have tried an elimination diet and then cut all these foods out and can’t add them back in because they keep reacting to them.
So go back to basics first and cut out additives, preservatives, packaged food and reduce the sugar, then you have a baseline to work with, the body can come back to understanding what real food is, process the information from that food and then go from there.
That is where I like to start, and from there I go to a food symptom journal, (you can get them online) and look at any link between particular foods and reactions. I really encourage people to work with a practitioner on that and get some testing done before taking food out.
What should we eat for optimal gut health?
What gut bacteria like to eat is whole fruits and vegetables with lots of fibre, and a whole range of them, as well as legumes, pulses and beans.
The reason I say we have to go back to the basics – meat, vegetables and whole foods – is because our bodies know what to do with these foods.
I like to say that food is information and the body knows what to do with it. If we add in lots of processed foods, additives and trans fats, firstly they are not natural and secondly, they can have an impact on the health of gut bacteria by altering their DNA and their activity. So, reduce processed foods and increase whole foods, it doesn’t get much simpler than that!
Jo offers a free 20-minute phone consultation if you have any concerns or questions relating to your child’s (or your own!) gut health. Head to her website for more information.