Gut Health For Kids: Grocery Shopping Tips

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As a pediatric registered dietitian focusing on gut health, I’m excited to share some valuable tips for nurturing your little one’s gut through mindful grocery shopping. With gut health being a hot topic, it’s essential to understand how the foods we buy can support our growing child’s digestive system. In this post, we’ll discuss gut-friendly foods to include in your shopping cart, gut-damaging foods to be mindful of, and gut-supporting supplements to consider.

Choosing Gut-Friendly Foods

When it comes to promoting gut health, three categories of foods stand out to me while grocery shopping: fermented foods, prebiotic-rich foods, and high-fiber foods.

1. Fermented Foods That Are Safe For Kids

Fermented foods are packed with probiotics, beneficial bacteria that support a healthy gut for growing babies and children. Some of my favorites include:

Gut Healthy Yogurts for Kids (Not all are created equal)

  • Plain, whole milk yogurt (Greek or non-Greek) with live and active cultures like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The yogurt shelf at the grocery store can be extremely overwhelming. Rather than recommending a specific brand, I educate families on how to shop. I encourage you to look at the nutrition facts panel and find the added sugars. Aim to look for less than 10 grams of added sugar per serving. Check out this example below. The yogurt on the left is plain, whole milk yogurt with 0 grams of added sugars. The yogurt on the right is vanilla, whole milk yogurt with 11 grams of added sugar per serving. That makes a big difference, especially if it’s a food that you use on a regular basis!

Kefir for Gut Health

  • Kefir is a fermented milk drink similar to yogurt, but it can contain up to 60 different strains of probiotics, including Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Streptococcus. When shopping for kefir, you’ll typically find it in the dairy section of your grocery store, near the yogurt. Look for plain, unsweetened kefir to avoid added sugars, which can feed harmful bacteria in the gut. There are many ways to incorporate kefir into your child’s diet. You can:
    • Offer it as a drink on its own, either plain or with a bit of fruit
    • Use it as a base for smoothies, blending it with fruits, vegetables, and other gut-friendly ingredients like chia seeds or avocado.
    • Substitute kefir for buttermilk or yogurt in recipes for pancakes, waffles, or baked goods. While heating does kill off the probiotics, it is still a nutrient-dense substitute.
    • Use it as a tangy, probiotic-rich base for salad dressings or dips.

Sauerkraut for Gut Health

  • Sauerkraut is a fermented food that offers numerous benefits for gut health! Made from shredded cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria, sauerkraut is rich in probiotics, vitamins, and minerals. When shopping for sauerkraut, it’s important to choose raw, unpasteurized varieties, as the pasteurization process kills off the beneficial bacteria. You can typically find raw sauerkraut in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, near other fermented foods like kimchi or pickles. While the high sodium content of sauerkraut may be a concern for some parents, it’s generally safe for babies to consume in small quantities. Start with a small amount (about 1 teaspoon) and gradually increase the serving size as your baby’s taste buds and digestive system adapt. You can mix sauerkraut with pureed vegetables or meats to make it more palatable for your little one. The tangy flavor and soft texture of sauerkraut can also help stimulate your baby’s taste buds and encourage them to explore new foods.

2. Prebiotic-rich foods that are safe for kids

Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that serve as food for the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in the gut, helping them thrive and multiply. By nourishing the good bacteria in the gut, prebiotics can help support digestive health, boost the immune system, and even improve mood and cognitive function. When shopping for prebiotic-rich foods, there are several key sources to look for:

Garlic and Onions for For Gut Health

  • Garlic and onions are rich in inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), two types of prebiotic fibers that have been shown to stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Inulin is a soluble fiber that can help reduce constipation, while FOS has been linked to improved calcium absorption and bone health. When shopping for garlic and onions, fresh is most beneficial in regards to gut health, as the prebiotic content may be slightly reduced in processed forms. However, minced and powdered options can still provide some prebiotic benefits and can be more convenient for busy families. Try adding minced garlic and onions to soups, stews, stir-fries, and other savory dishes to boost their prebiotic content. They are even safe for babies eating solids!

Potatoes and Resistant Starch

  • Potatoes, especially when cooked and cooled, are a good source of resistant starch. Resistant starch is a type of prebiotic fiber that resists digestion in the small intestine and is instead fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the colon. This fermentation process produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which can help reduce inflammation and improve gut barrier function. You can use cooled potatoes in dishes like potato salad, or simply serve them as a chilled side dish. What kid doesn’t love potatoes? And be sure to leave the skin on for an extra fiber boost!

Are Unripe Bananas Healthier for Gut Health?

  • Bananas in general are an excellent source of nutrients, but did you know that unripe bananas contain more resistant starch than ripe bananas. Similar to cooked and cooled potatoes, the resistant starch is used as food for the beneficial bacteria. As bananas ripen, their resistant starch content decreases and is replaced by simple sugars. That’s why it’s best to choose slightly green bananas when looking to boost your family’s prebiotic intake.
  • Unripe bananas can be a bit tougher and less sweet than their ripe counterparts, but they can still be used in a variety of ways. Try adding them to smoothies for a creamy texture and prebiotic boost, or slice them onto oatmeal or cereal for a nutrient-dense topping. You can also use unripe bananas in baked goods like muffins or bread, where their firmer texture can help add structure and moisture.
  • Other prebiotic-rich foods to consider adding to your shopping list include:
    • Asparagus
    • Leeks
    • Onions
    • Garlic
    • Jerusalem artichokes
    • Chicory root
    • Barley
    • Oats
    • Apples
    • Flaxseeds
  • By incorporating a variety of these prebiotic-rich foods into your family’s diet, you can help support the growth and diversity of beneficial gut bacteria. Aim to include at least one prebiotic-rich food in each meal or snack, and don’t be afraid to experiment with new recipes and flavor combinations.

3. High-Fiber Foods for Kid’s Gut Health

Dietary fiber is essential for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. It helps promote regular bowel movements, prevents constipation, and feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut. When shopping for high-fiber foods, prioritize:

Fruits and Vegetables with Edible Skins and Seeds

  • When it comes to boosting your family’s fiber intake, fruits and vegetables with edible skins are an easy choice! The skin and seeds of many fruits and vegetables are rich in pectin, a type of soluble fiber that can help promote regular bowel movements and improve digestive health. Pectin works by drawing water into the colon, softening the stool and making it easier to pass.
  • Some of the best fruits and vegetables with edible skins and seeds include:
    • Berries, like strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries
    • Apples and pears
    • Kiwis
    • Squash, like acorn and butternut
    • Cucumber
    • Potatoes

Do Frozen or Canned Vegetables Still Contain Fiber?

Absolutely! Frozen and canned vegetables are a convenient and affordable way to boost your family’s fiber intake. These options are often picked and processed at peak ripeness, which helps lock in their nutrients and flavor. This means that frozen vegetables can be just as nutritious (if not more so) than their fresh counterparts, especially if the fresh produce has been sitting on the shelf for a while. Canned vegetables are another good option, as they are often more affordable than fresh or frozen produce and have a longer shelf life. Some of the best frozen and canned vegetable options for boosting fiber intake include: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Spinach, Peas, Corn and Green beans.

My favorite lil secret — 🤫 RICED CAULIFLOWER! This can literally be thrown into any dish (even mac and cheese!) and VOILA, you boosted your family’s fiber intake for the day.

Packaged Foods for Gut Health

  • While whole foods are always the best choice for boosting fiber intake, there are also many packaged foods that can be a good source of fiber too. When shopping for packaged foods, look for options that have at least 2 grams of dietary fiber per serving, and whole grains listed as the first ingredient.

Some examples of high-fiber packaged foods include:

  • Whole-grain bread, pasta, and crackers
    • Dave’s Killer Bread 21 Whole Grains and Seeds
    • Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Bread
    • Banza Chickpea Pasta
    • Barilla Whole Grain Spaghetti
    • Wasa Whole Grain Crispbread
    • Triscuit Original Whole Grain Wheat Crackers
  • Rice and quinoa:
    • Minute Brown Rice
    • Success Brown Rice, Whole Grain
    • RiceSelect Quinoa, Tri-Color
    • Bob’s Red Mill Organic Quinoa
  • Cereals and oatmeal:
    • Life Cereal, Multigrain, Original
    • Multi Grain Cheerios
    • Kellogg’s Raisin Bran
    • Quaker Old Fashioned Oats
    • Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats
  • Snacks:
    • Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Naturals Simply Salted Popcorn
    • ZBAR CLIF Kid Zbar Protein
    • Happy Tot Organics Fiber & Protein Oat Bar
    • Sunmaid Dried Figs
    • 365 Everyday Value Organic Pitted Medjool Dates

Be Mindful of Foods that are Damaging to the Gut

While I believe in adding foods rather than eliminating them, it’s important to be aware of foods that may negatively impact gut health.

1. Ultra-Processed Foods

  • One of the main problems with processed foods is that they often lack the fiber and nutrients that are essential for maintaining a healthy gut. Instead, they are typically high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, which can feed the harmful bacteria in the gut and lead to an overgrowth of these organisms. This can result in a condition known as dysbiosis, where the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut is disrupted.
  • In addition to lacking fiber, processed foods are often high in added sugars. These sugars can come in many forms, including high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and even “natural” sugars like honey and agave nectar. While some sugar in the diet is okay, excessive sugar consumption has been linked to a variety of health problems.
  • When shopping for packaged snacks and processed foods, it’s essential to read the nutrition labels carefully. Look for options that have less than 10 grams of added sugar per serving!

2. Food Additives that can cause Gut Damage

  • Carrageenan is a common food additive used as a thickener and emulsifier in processed foods, such as dairy products, plant-based milks, and deli meats. Some studies have suggested that carrageenan may disrupt the gut microbiome by promoting inflammation and altering the composition of gut bacteria. This disruption may lead to digestive issues, such as bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, in some individuals.
  • Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) is a synthetic cellulose derivative that is commonly used as a thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer in processed foods, such as ice cream, bread, and salad dressings. Some animal studies have suggested that CMC may disrupt the gut microbiome by altering the composition of gut bacteria and promoting the growth of harmful bacteria. This disruption may lead to increased intestinal inflammation.
  • Polysorbate 80 is a synthetic emulsifier that is commonly used in processed foods, such as ice cream, baked goods, and salad dressings, as well as in some medications and supplements. Some studies have suggested that polysorbate 80 may disrupt the gut microbiome by altering the composition of gut bacteria and promoting the growth of harmful bacteria.

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