Fiber is Fantastic!
When we think about “fiber” and “staying regular,” we often default to thinking about those old ads for products like Metamucil. We think of it as the kind of thing only old people have to deal with. But I go on mommy forums and I see other mums posting all the time about how their kids, from infants on up, are constipated. The most common pieces of advice I see are to give kids grape juice or sugar water to drink. Wait, what?! What those kids really need is a good dose of fiber.
How Fiber Prevents Constipation
My kids are never constipated. Once, when I was a new mum, I thought my baby was constipated, until I realized that some newborns just don’t poo every day like adults do (or should). Since then, we have never had a problem with constipation, which is probably because my kids eat lots and lots of fiber.
There are two kinds of fiber, both of which are essential to “staying regular.” Soluble fiber retains water, which helps make stool softer and easier to pass. (Think of the term “water soluble,” which means it dissolves in water.) Insoluble fiber doesn’t absorb water, but it does add bulk to waste matter. The more waste matter there is, the faster it passes through the gut. When waste goes through the gut slowly and sits there for a long time, it gives that uncomfortable and well-known feeling of being constipated. Erk!
How Fiber Works
The benefits of fiber don’t just stop at easing or preventing constipation, however. Fiber does all sorts of great things for our bodies. It is most well-known for helping ease digestive issues of all sorts. I always think of it like this: Fiber doesn’t break down in our bodies. This means it stays intact as it passes through our gut. I imagine it as a kind of bristle brush passing through the intestines. As it goes, it brushes up against the walls and cleans out all that gunk that builds up. (If you want to know what builds up and you have a strong stomach, feel free to look at these cringe-worthy pictures.) By cleaning out backed-up waste, fiber helps us avoid constipation, as well as other gut-related diseases.
When Do Kids Need Fiber?
Exclusively breast or formula feeding infants don’t need additional fiber in their diets. After six months, however, babies need fiber in their diets. And babies who are fed healthy, plant-based foods should get plenty. Many babies at young ages do need some of that fiber broken down by cooking processes to avoid them getting upset stomachs, as their digestive tracts are still developing. My babies got pureed steamed peas and broccoli, but what they loved the most was getting stewed fruit: apples, pears, peaches – whatever we had handy and in season! Infants and children old enough to eat raw fruits and vegetables should be eating lots of those foods, which should supply them with plenty of fiber.
Unfortunately, processed foods today are often really low in fiber. White bread and white rice have the fibrous outer layers of the grain removed, while animal products do not have any fiber in them. Kids can go the whole day without getting much fiber at all. From bacon and eggs with milk for breakfast to ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch to mac’n’cheese with hot dogs for dinner, kids can easily go the whole day without getting the fiber they need for good health.
While there are fiber supplements that can be administered, one of the main benefits of consuming high-fiber food is that fiber comes with other nutrients. Foods high in fiber tend to be really high in nutrition. A supplement won’t be able to give your kids the same complete nutrition that eating fruits and vegetables will.
Other Benefits of Eating Fiber
In fact, did you know that for every 10 grams of fiber you eat, your risk of death from all causes decreases by 10%?* Don’t we all want our kids to lead healthier lives and to decrease their risks from all diseases? Gosh, getting them to eat more fiber certainly seems like a great way to do that!
As I mentioned above, consuming dietary fiber significantly reduces constipation and prevents it from forming in the first place.* Not only that, eating plenty of fiber reduces risk of breast cancer (which is probably of more interest to mommies than babies)** and even stroke.*** Many kids today suffer from all sorts of allergies and inflammations, which can also be reduced by increasing fiber intake.**** Heart disease is more of risk to children than ever before and a vegan diet has been shown to help dramatically, which is perhaps why the American Heart Association recommends eating more fiber. Fiber can also help kids lose weight, which is possibly why the American Diabetes Association recommends eating more of it, in addition to fiber’s ability to help control blood glucose levels.
Fiber really sounds like the magic super nutrient we should all be eating and feeding our kids. Just take some fiber supplements and we’ll all live healthfully ever after! Well…. No. Not quite. As I mentioned above, it is really the confluence of all those things that make up the foods that contain fiber. It’s not just the fiber, it’s the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are contributing to the benefits of a high fiber diet. That’s why it’s best to get fiber from natural whole foods rather than a supplement or a food to which fiber has been added at the end.
How Much Fiber Should Kids Eat?
Just because fiber is good for kids doesn’t mean you should load them up on super high-fiber foods and supplements. Too little is no good but too much can also hurt. Too much fiber can once again cause digestive issues like constipation, cramping, or even diarrhea. Still, you would be surprised at how much fiber really is the recommendation: I find it unlikely that kids are eating too much fiber!
Here are the American Heart Association daily fiber intake recommendations for kids:
- Babies 1-3 years old: 19 grams
- Children 4-8 years old: 25 grams
- Girls 9-13 years old: 26 grams
- Boys 9-13 years old: 31 grams
- Girls 14-18 years old: 26 grams
- Boys 14-18 years old: 38 grams
Adults should continue to follow the 14-18 year old recommendations.
Fiber tends to be really overlooked as an essential part of children’s nutrition. Yet it gives kids the same health benefits it gives adults, and more! If we can give kids a healthy start and foundation, they will grow up to be healthier adults. Get your kids eating more high fiber foods and soon they’ll be feeling the benefits of a healthier digestive tract.
*Yang J, Wang HP, Zhou L, Xu CF. Effect of dietary fiber on constipation: a meta analysis. World J Gastroenterol. 2012;18(48):7378-7383.
**Dong JY, He K, Wang P, and Qin LQ. Dietary fiber intake and risk of breast cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(3):900-905.
***Chen GC, Lv DB, Pang Z, Dong JY, Liu QF. Dietary fiber intake and stroke risk: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2013;67(1):96-100.
****Jiao J, Xu JY, Zhang W, Han S, Qin LQ. Effect of dietary fiber on circulating C-reactive protein in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2015;66(1):114-119.