Belly pain? The solution might be in the kitchen

If there’s something that I talk about almost every day as a pediatric dietitian, it’s poop. (Glamorous, isn’t it?). That’s because almost every parent, at some time or another, has questions about what might be normal for their child. Many times, these conversations start as we are taking about their child’s belly pain.  Often times, the answer to a lot of upset stomachs is in the cupboard, fruit bowl, or veggie drawer. 

We are talking about fiber! Neither children nor adults are eating enough of this good stuff, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Eating adequate amounts of fiber is not only important for adults to help prevent certain cancers and control cholesterol; fiber is the answer to many common tummy complaints in kids.  More than 5 percent of all “sick visits” to the pediatrician, and up to 25 percent of visits to a GI specialist are associated with constipation.  When children eat enough fiber, it helps them stool more regularly. This prevents the straining and discomfort commonly caused by constipation. 

But a healthy GI tract isn’t the only benefit of a high fiber diet. Children who eat a diet high in fiber are often eating foods that are more nutrient dense, helping them to meet their other vitamin and mineral needs for growth.  Just like in adults, eating a high fiber meal helps children feel satiated, which can prevent overeating. Another bonus to jumping on the fiber wagon early? Children who incorporate healthy eating habits early on are more likely to continue those eating habits as adults.   

What are the goals for fiber intake? Personally, I suggest that children eat at least 5 whole fruits and vegetables per day, and to make “half of your grains whole.” Following these general rules will help to encourage adequate fiber intake throughout the day.  If having a number helps you, the Institute of Medicine recommends the following grams/ day of fiber based on age: 

  • 1-3 years: 19 grams
  • 4-8 years: 25 grams
  • 9-13 years: 26-31 grams
  • 14-18 years: 26-38 grams

How can you up your child’s fiber intake? When looking at a label of a packaged food like bread or cereal, choose items with at least 3 grams/serving of fiber.  And here’s the best news….there are many child-friendly foods that are naturally high in fiber (containing at least 3 grams of fiber per serving):

Fiber-rich Favorites for Kids

  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Edamame
  • Apples with the skin
  • Green peas
  • Pears with skin
  • Beans
  • Almonds
  • Baked potato with skin
  • Sweet potato (try these sweet potato spears)
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Banana
  • Orange

A few other helpful tips for fiber consumption: 

  1. Slowly increase the amount.  If you child’s diet was lacking in fiber, slowly increase the number of high fiber foods over a couple of weeks to allow their digestive system to adjust to the change. 
  2. Drink up. If you add fiber, you must add fluid!  Adequate water intake is essential to helping fiber move through the GI tract. 
  3. Be creative. Incorporating fiber doesn’t have to be boring OR complicated.  Try a yogurt parfait with some banana and whole grain cereal, overnight oats with berries, or trail mix with dried fruit and nuts for quick, easy meals and snacks. 

Helping your kids focus on fiber will promote a happy GI tract, and healthy eating future.

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