Gut health for fussy eaters
Gut health is currently a hot topic. You may have a great understanding of the topic, or just a basic overview of why it’s important. Either way, if you are the parent of a fussy eater, you could well be concerned that whatever your child is eating it’s probably not ideal!
Don’t worry, we’ll be looking at ways we can help our child thrive, as best as is practicable, even within a narrow diet.
Let’s start by looking at what gut health is and why it’s important.
What is gut health?
Gut health is a developing area, so new research provides more information as time goes on. Let’s not get bogged down in the details but talk through a simple overview:
The human body contains both cells and bacteria.
Most bacteria are good for you, and the ones located in the gut – called gut flora or gut microbiota help us digest foods. They are also responsible for many other important functions in the body, from physical to mental health.
Keeping the bacteria happy improves both digestive and general functioning.
Your gut microbiome
The gut microbiome is where the bacteria in your digestive tract hang out. Here they help break down the foods you eat into forms the body can use.
The good bacteria also help to protect the body from fungi and other harmful substances and can support immune system function.
The good bacteria are also able to prevent the bad bacteria from growing by taking up all the space. A healthy balance in the gut is known as equilibrium.
Having an unhealthy balance may lead to discomfort and conditions like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
Some of the gut bacteria also help build a stronger gut barrier to prevent viruses, bad bacteria and other harmful things entering the colon. This can also prevent inflammation.
Vitamin K is – essential for blood clotting – is also produced by certain gut bacteria.
It is now thought that the brain is not totally in charge as we once thought. Messages do not just go from brain to gut, but also from gut to brain. This means that the balance of bacteria in the gut may affect emotions and sensory processing (the way the brain receives and manages information from the senses).
This means the gut microbiome may impact moods, anxiety and a range of other conditions.
How can you support your child’s gut health?
Your microbiome is there from birth. Where you live, what you do, and what you eat will affect its composition.
Let’s focus on food as that’s my favourite topic!
Food and your microbiota
What you consume has an impact on the balance of bacteria in the gut.
A diet high in sugar and processed fats can be detrimental to gut bacteria.
Also, the more you feed the wrong bacteria the more easily they flourish and multiply. This is especially so if there are not as many good bacteria preventing them from doing so.
Antibiotics can also affect good bacteria.
What you eat can though, have a positive impact on your gut microbiota. Some of these foods are also not as challenging to get into the diet as you may be thinking, even for the super selective eaters!
Let’s look at those oft-mentioned probiotics and prebiotics and also talk about synbiotics, which you may not have heard of.
These are live beneficial bacteria and are found in some foods and supplements. They can add to those bacteria already in the intestinal tract.
There are different types of probiotics, and they work in different ways and therefore have differing effects on the body like:
- Boosting gastrointestinal health and helping it function optimally
- Strengthening the immune system
- Helping with the symptoms of allergies and intolerances
Because we are all unique, as are our microbiomes the impact of probiotics will also vary.
These come from certain types of carbs, mostly fibre, that we are unable to digest, and are the food source for probiotics.
They enable the growth of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut and can help calcium absorption and reduce inflammation.
Eating the right balance of probiotics and prebiotics will help to keep gut microbiota healthy by in turn keeping the right balance of bacteria.
This is a lovely thought, but how do you do that if your child is eating a limited diet and is not interested in boosting beneficial bacteria unless it’s via plain pasta or honey on toast?
Probiotic foods for fussy eaters
I’m not saying this is necessarily easy, but there are certain things you can serve that may be a win! There may also be foods where you think “okay, that’s good news!”.
1. Yoghurt – of course, not all yoghurts are created equally, and the Paw Patrol ones are not going to be as good as the $ 17,000 ones.
Look on the ingredients list for live cultures of beneficial bacteria like bifidobacterial and lactobacilli.
You can of course, take a good quality yoghurt and add cocoa powder to make a choc yoghurt.
Or add yoghurt to a smoothie, make it into a popsicle or serve semi-frozen like an ice-cream.
There are also drinkable versions, which may be easier for some children.
2. Aged cheese – cheeses that have been aged but not heated afterwards. Checking labels is always a good idea. If there is the slightest chance it’s beneficial, manufacturers will be all over it
iii) Cottage cheese
3. Fermented or pickled vegetables – these are usually a harder sell, but some picky eaters love the bite of gherkins or pickles (Maccas put them in burgers )
4. Kefir – adding milk kefir is actually easier than you would expect, and contains three times more probiotics and more active cultures than yoghurt.
I make my own just by adding a kefir grain to regular milk and leaving it overnight. You can then add a little to cereal (it does have a sour taste) or use as the base for a smoothie.
If buying kefir from the store check the label before buying!
5. Kombucha – contains lactic acid bacteria that can act as a probiotic. Many fussy eaters enjoy fizzy drinks (especially if they are viewed as treat only).
Drinking is also usually easier than eating so new drinks are more readily accepted.
Prebiotic foods for fussy eaters
Prebiotics are types of fibre found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes. We are not able to digest them, but beneficial bacteria can.
Unlike probiotics, they are not killed by heat, so you bake with them.
Foods that are high in them include:
1. Oats – these are often okay for fussy eaters. We could serve as porridge, muesli, muesli bars or Anzac biscuits, for example.
2. Bananas – frequently a win for picky eaters. If not what about banana bread or ‘banana ice cream’.
3. Berries – again often accepted. As is, in smoothies or in a home-made ice cream.
4. Onion, leek, and garlic – for some children these are okay when finely diced into a bolognaise or tomato sauce, for example.
5. Green beans and peas – not always top of the list, but raw beans and frozen peas are always worth a whirl for those who don’t eat them.
6. Beans – if beans are a no, there are many recipes using them in baking.
7. Whole wheat – if brown bread is okay then that’s great. If not, you may be able to find pasta that contains prebiotics.
Synbiotic foods for fussy eaters
Prebiotics are good for probiotics which help the growth of beneficial bacteria. If you combine the two then it’s a synbiotic. When we do this it can enable the probiotics to live longer.
You can create your own by combining pre and probiotic foods, for example, yoghurt and bananas.
My advice with supplements is that generally, you get what you pay for!
There are also children who struggle with capsules or pills. However, a friend gave me some probiotics to test that are berry flavour and dissolve easily into drinks or on the tongue. Really quite yummy for something that is great for us
If you would like advice on how to increase probiotics or prebiotics in your child’s diet, please get in touch.
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/