It’s not always easy to get your child to make healthy choices at mealtime. Once they become accustomed to sugary and fatty foods, it can be tough to switch over to a diet rich in fruits, veggies and lean proteins. Now there’s more reason to get your kids on a good nutritional path: A study indicates that having a diet high in sugar and fat as a child can alter the gut microbiome for life—even if the diet is more balanced later.
We connected with Children’s Health Registered Dietitian Mikie Rangel about the research and how you can set up your child for lifelong health.
Tell us more about the study and the importance of the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome describes the trillions of microorganisms that live in our digestive tract. Our gut microbiota are essential for survival; they help digest our food, produce key nutrients, support our immune system and are even linked to mood, metabolism, appetite regulation and heart health.
Each person has their own unique population of bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa. Research has not yet identified the perfect blend of microorganisms for optimum health, but diversity is important. The more diverse the population of microbes, the better.
Although this study was done on mice, researchers believe the data likely applies to humans. Eating a typical western diet—high in sugar and fat, lower in fiber—early in life results in a less-diverse microbiome over time.
How much is too much when we’re talking about sugar and fats in a child’s diet? Children age 2 and older should have less than 25 grams—six teaspoons—of added sugar daily; avoid added sugars completely for kids under 2.
Beverages are the most common source of added sugars for most Americans. Remind children that the rest of the animal kingdom is happy to hydrate with plain water, and we humans should be no different. Other common sources of added sugars include packaged snacks, desserts, condiments and sweetened yogurt.
Unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables have no added sugars; the natural sugars they contain are paired with fiber and antioxidants. Milk and plain yogurt also have natural sugars but offer protein, calcium and vitamin D, too.
Artificial sweeteners may seem like a reasonable alternative, but they should be avoided as well. Research has shown artificial sweeteners negatively impact the gut microbiome, disrupting balance and diversity in the gut.
Fat should comprise about one-third of a child’s daily caloric intake, with the focus on heart-healthy fats from plant and fish sources.
What should we do when our kids refuse to eat healthy foods? The same way we regulate programs our children watch and activities they try, we need to remember that parents oversee which foods are offered and should only offer only those foods you want them to eat.
At snack time, offering your child chips or carrots will likely result in parental disappointment when they inevitably choose chips. Instead, offer them carrots or apples, and you can feel comfortable with either choice they make. They may refuse both of those options, and that’s OK too. Remind them that it’s snack time now, and if they choose to skip their snack because they don’t like the choices, they’ll have to wait until the next meal. But remain consistent; if the next meal consists of nuggets and chips, they’ll be OK with skipping their snack. Make sure their meals also include healthy foods you want them to eat.
What are some dishes and food choices you recommend for kids—things that are good for them that they’ll enjoy eating? Most kids enjoy fruit, and it requires little if any effort. Apples, bananas and mandarin oranges are portable and easy for kids to serve themselves. Don’t forget about a cooler full of sliced melon for the park; berries or grapes to snack on after school; and more adventurous choices like kiwi and mango to add color to meals.
When it comes to vegetables, try them different ways. Some kids prefer cold, crunchy raw vegetables like carrots, cucumbers and celery; keep them prepped and ready in the fridge to offer when your child is hungry and dinner is almost ready—a hungry child is more likely to try something new. Some kids think they don’t like vegetables because they’ve only had them boiled or canned. Try roasting, grilling or sautéing vegetables with a little salt for a new experience.
It’s important to choose lean cuts of meat, poultry without skin, and include fish and shellfish one to three times per week. To increase fiber, remember to include plant-based proteins as well. Beans are an excellent source of both protein and fiber. Add them whole or lightly mashed to soups and casseroles, and they are another great addition to salads.
Hummus is a healthy companion to cold, crunchy vegetables and can be added to sandwiches in place of mayonnaise. Choose nut butters that are natural or lower in sugar and salt; they’re easy to pair with fruit, whole-grain crackers or on whole-wheat toast. Choose low-fat milk and cheese and include yogurt and kefir, which have probiotics to foster growth of healthy gut bacteria.
If kids didn’t get off to a good start, nutritionally speaking, we assume there’s still value in making healthy choices later. Of course! Research suggests that a healthy diet can start to improve the gut microbiome in as little as five to 14 days. Consistency is important, though. Resumption of unhealthy habits will revert the gut to its former state just as quickly.
It’s important [for families] to discuss why healthy eating is important. Too much emphasis is put on weight, while we should be focusing on health. Healthy food is essential for everyone, just like not smoking, and wearing seat belts, helmets and sunscreen.
When we make healthy choices from the five food groups, we build strong bones and teeth that won’t break easily—that’s dairy; we help our bodies grow and strengthen our immune system through protein; we get colorful plant nutrients and gut-healthy fiber from fruits and vegetables; and healthy energy for our brains through whole grains.
Make sure [your children] know there will still be treats—maybe once per week is kids’ choice dinner and movie, or Friday night is dessert night. The important thing is that the overall intake is healthy, that when your child opens the refrigerator or pantry, they are faced with healthy options.
When it’s time for a treat, there is enough for that one meal or that one dessert, and then it’s gone. Go out for a scoop of ice cream; don’t stock gallons in the freezer.
When would a parent know they should seek out a registered dietitian for help with their kids’ diet? Any time there is a concern about growth—too much or too little—a dietitian can help your child get the right balance of energy and nutrition to get them on track. Kids with extreme picky-eating behaviors, eating less than 10 foods total or eliminating multiple food groups, or several food allergies may need extra help to ensure they’re meeting their micronutrient needs.
Image courtesy of iStock.