Increasingly, children are developing digestive problems that were once reserved for adults. Digestive problems such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and even inflammatory bowel diseases can result from a multitude of factors, but the underlying cause is often inappropriate eating habits. The role of good nutrition in health is unfortunately still under-emphasized in North America. Although we recognize a relationship between food and the body's functioning, there is still a tendency to assume that the mechanics of the body are malfunctioning due to other reasons.
We need to realize that if digestion is impaired, that means the food we eat is not being broken down and absorbed properly. Digestion is how your body takes food and makes it usable in the form of energy and nutrients. In many healing modalities, it is believed that problems with digestion are at the heart of all other health conditions. To help improve your child’s digestion and their body’s access to nutrients, it is best to implement some of the strategies listed below. Oftentimes, even modifying some of the harmful habits that overwhelm children's systems can be enough to bring about change.
1. Avoid Overeating
In today’s world of supersizes, it is easy to lose sight of what a proper portion is. This is especially true when eating out because restaurants dish out larger portions to give the sense of value to customers. Children do not have a sense of how much food is appropriate, so it is up to parents to show them how much they should be eating. Overeating puts a lot of pressure on the digestive system and should be avoided. When too much food is eaten, it taxes the body’s ability to properly break down and assimilate nutrients. Since parents are in control of food preparation and serving, it is recommended to serve out smaller portions on plates and keep extra in the kitchen so that children do not overeat. In addition, this method can help slow down children’s eating pace, which is another factor in digestive problems.
2. Drink Away from Meals
When most children sit down to eat, they expect to drink something. This combination of food and liquid can lead to slower digestion as the digestive juices are diluted by the liquids consumed. It is best to keep the amount of fluids around mealtime to a minimum. Have children drink their water before meals – up to 15 minutes prior or about 30 to 45 minutes after meals.
3. Eliminate Processed Foods
Processed foods – really all packaged and fast foods – should be removed from the diet of children with digestive problems. These foods tend to contain many harmful substances such as trans fats and preservatives that can interfere with digestion. Because many of these substances are unnatural, our bodies are not sure what to do with them, and this complicates digestion. In addition, processed foods contain very few nutrients and will use up the body’s nutrients as they are digested. This will in turn create a nutrient deficiency that will impair future digestion. Children with digestive problems should stick to natural, whole foods that the body recognizes and can readily use.
4. Limit Heavy Foods
Certain foods, including meats and dairy, are harder to digest than others and may use up more digestive energy. These foods should be moderated to help the digestive system recuperate from all of the extra work it is doing. Try having at least one or two vegetarian days a week, where meals are organized around vegetables and non-meat proteins such as legumes.
5. Proper Combinations
Eating certain foods together and keeping certain foods apart from each other may also help alleviate digestive issues. This concept, known as food combining, recognizes that the body requires specific mediums to digest certain foods, and that eating foods that require different mediums can slow down digestion. The main foods that should be kept apart are starches (i.e. breads, potatoes, rice, pasta) and protein-dense foods such as meat. Using food-combining principles to improve digestion does not mean a child can never eat a meat sandwich. It just means that some meals should be designed around proper combinations to help facilitate digestion. A good example would be to have a dinner of wild salmon with non-starch vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower.
6. Eat with Awareness
In today’s world of a million distractions, many children are eating food while watching TV or playing on their computers. This habit can also interfere with digestion, as the body is not primed to digest food when it is distracted. When the body is stressed, it diverts energy away from digestion and instead prepares to fight-or-flight. Children and families should practice mindful eating around meal times. This habit will encourage the body to digest food that was consumed properly.
Incorporating these digestive strategies into your child’s eating habits can assist in reducing the burden placed on the digestive system. Once this burden is removed, your child should start to notice an improvement in symptoms such as gas, bloating, and even discomfort. If pain continues after the above strategies have been implemented, consult your health care practitioner for further advice.
READ MORE: 12 Nutrition Tips for Picky Eaters