Why it's important to ensure good gut health and how to teach kids about it

  • Family
  • Thursday, 23 May 2024

When it comes to making good food choices, parents should set a good example. — 123rf

A GROWING child needs proper care and nutrition in order to flourish. When it comes to nutrition, your child’s gut is the key to optimal digestive process. Gut health can be considered as a cornerstone in absorbing nutrients to aid growth and development.

Unfortunately, gut health tends to take a backseat to other concerns unless there are other problems such as diarrhoea, vomitting, nausea, bloating, tummy discomfort and other abdominal complaints. These symptoms also occur in adults.

Did you know?

Recent statistics show that many Malaysian adults suffer from poor digestive health. The Health Facts 2016 (released by the Ministry of Health (MOH) revealed that diseases of the digestive system were:

The fourth principal cause of hospitalisation in private hospitals.

The sixth principal cause of death recorded in both government and private hospitals.

The seventh principal cause of hospitalisation in government hospitals.

Maintaining good gut health

Here’s a basic checklist to follow:

1. Eat the right food: Ensure that your child’s diet includes sufficient fruits and vegetables to ensure he gets enough fibre. Keep meal schedules regular and healthy. Limit intake of deep-fried foods and sugary food and drinks. Encourage children to drink at least eight glasses of water daily (more on very hot days or if they engage in vigorous physical activity).

2. Stay active: Children should have at least an hour a day of any type of physical activity. This helps their digestive system to run smoothly as it aids in promoting regular bowel movements and help them maintain healthy body weight.

3. Maintain good hygiene: Teach them about personal hygiene such as washing their hands properly after going to the toilet and before eating. Good hygiene is vital in helping to keep the bad bacteria from entering their digestive tract.

Why gut health is important

Good gut health helps ensure that your child’s body can properly digest food and absorb nutrients that are essential for growth. The gut also plays a role in immunity as it acts as their body’s first line of defence against infection. Furthermore, it can also influence a child's mood (due to the large concentration of nerve cells called the enteric nervous system (ENS), leading to the gut being called the ‘second brain’).

The ENS controls many functions, such as digestive process, release of enzymes, flow of blood during digestion and bowel movement. There is plenty of new evidence that shows how the brain is linked to the gut and it’s called gut-brain axis. When you feel anxious or depressed, it can affect not just your appetite but may also cause other digestive problems such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating or other stomach discomforts. Conversely, having an upset tummy (or any other digestive-related problem) can also trigger an emotional shift and bring your mood down.

Good gut health helps your child’s body to properly digest food and absorb nutrients that are essential for growth. — Positive ParentingGood gut health helps your child’s body to properly digest food and absorb nutrients that are essential for growth. — Positive Parenting

The gut’s tiny helpers

At the heart of gut health is the large collection of microbial life that lives in your child’s guts called gut microbiota, which consists of both good and bad bacteria. Healthy lifestyle practices help to maintain gut microbiota balance, which helps to optimise good gut health.

Studies have shown that good bacteria (also called probiotics) provide many health benefits to both children and adults. In fact, a local study performed by researchers at the then Pusat Perubatan Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (now known as Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz UKM), revealed notable reduction in intestinal transit time (ITT), or the time it takes the body to convert food into stool and significant improvements in the symptoms of constipation. This study showed that probiotics in the form of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus paracasei are effective in improving overall digestive health.

Maintaining a healthy gut microbiota balance is not a difficult task. This relates to the first tip for maintaining good gut health, which is eating right.

There are two main aspects that need to be addressed, namely ensuring that your child eats prebiotic-rich foods (prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics).Prebiotics are predominantly found in dietary fibre (non-digestible carbohydrates), some of which serve as prebiotics. Foods that are prebiotic-rich include banana, garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, and asparagus.

Secondly, children should also be encouraged to eat probiotic-rich foods such as fermented milk products (cheese, yogurt), fermented soy products (tempeh), kefir, kimchi or food products with added probiotics (check the nutrition label while grocery shopping).

Practise what you preach

Remember, your children imitate you, so make sure you walk the talk or they will not be inspired to adhere to the aforementioned guidelines. Starting them off on their journey to better gut health together can help bring you closer to each other. While it is never too late to get them started, it is better to start as early as possible in order to instil healthy habits that will last a lifetime. Remember, the habits of their childhood will last well into their adult life.

Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali is a consultant physician and gastroenterologist. This story also appears on Positive Parenting, an education initiative by the Malaysian Paediatric Association. For more articles and expert advice, check out mypositiveparenting.org.

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