5 Steps to Better Digestive Health

There’s more to your child’s digestive system than meets the eye – it starts from his mouth and continues until everything he has eaten or drunk has been eliminated by his body. His digestive system is responsible for breaking down all that he ingests and for extracting all the nutrients needed by his body.

Take the following steps to ensure better digestive health for your child:

  1. Get more exercise
  2. Maintain a healthy diet
  3. Drink plenty of water
  4. Get enough pro- and pre-biotics
  5. Limit fat, salt, and sugar intake

1) Get more exercise

Limit your child’s sedentary activities like playing computer games or watching TV. Instead, encourage him to be more physically active. Make sure he squeezes in a total of at least 60 minutes a day for any sort of exercise such as brisk walking, running, jogging, aerobics, yoga, futsal, or badminton. He doesn’t have to do it all at once; he can do 15 minutes of brisk walking in the morning, then another 45 minutes of playing badminton in the evening. Physical activity and exercise helps maintain a healthy weight. Any exercise that increases breathing and heart rate is great for his digestion, and it stimulates his intestinal muscles, thus helping move food more efficiently through his intestines.

However, take care not to do heavy exercises after a large meal. As the process of digestion requires copious blood flow through your child’s stomach and intestines, exercising immediately after eating will cause his blood to be redirected to the heart and muscles instead. This will make his intestinal muscles work sluggishly, smaller quantities of digestive enzymes will be released, and the entire digestive process slows down, leading to heartburn, bloating and constipation.

2) Maintain a healthy diet

Observe the principles of balance, moderation, and variety – this means your child should have a balanced diet which includes foods from all five food groups in the Malaysian Food Pyramid, eat in moderate portions (served according to the recommended number of servings per food group), and have a diet that consists of a variety of foods that will meet all his nutritional needs.

Be sure to include plenty of fibre-rich foods in your child’s diet as they help soften stool, thus preventing constipation and reducing symptoms of digestive disorders such as haemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome. Some of the best sources of dietary fibre are whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits.

Let him take his time to eat – the process of digestion begins in his mouth, so be sure he chews his food properly. Enzymes in his saliva help break down the food, and the chewing process preps his body to receive food. His stomach and pancreas also begins to secrete enzymes that aid the digestive process. Another reason to avoid rushing through meals is to avoid swallowing air – this can cause belching or bloating.

Make sure he eats meals at regular intervals and avoid overeating. Since the body produces a certain volume of digestive juices, large meals are poorly digested and stresses the system. With a regular schedule, your child’s digestive organs have time to rest between meals.

3) Drink plenty of water

Water has zero calories so your child should drink water instead of other things such as sodas or store-bought fruit juices! On average, children aged:

  • 3-6 years should drink 4-5 glasses (1L-1.3L) a day,
  • 7-12 years should drink 6-9 glasses (1.6L-2.2L) a day,
  • 13-18 years should drink 9-11 glasses (2.2L-2.8L) a day.

More may be required if it is a hot day or if your child engages in strenuous activity (e.g. sports day, participating in a run or walkathon, etc.) to replace the fluids he loses through perspiration. Sufficient water ensures his digestive health as his stool will be lubricated and travels through his intestines more easily. However, do not overdo it! Drinking too much water too quickly can lead to hyponatraemia (water intoxication), which is a condition where the electrolyte levels in the blood become dangerously diluted.

4) Get enough pro- and pre-biotics

The inside of your child’s intestines is filled with bacteria, and it is vital the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria is maintained. One way to ensure this is by eating probiotic-rich foods (beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (‘food’ for beneficial bacteria).

Probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, cultured milk drink, cheese, and tempeh. Prebiotics can be found in foods such as whole grains, oatmeal, bananas, legumes, onions, garlic, and honey.

5) Limit fat, salt, and sugar intake

Limit your child’s intake of foods that are high in fat, salt, or sugar such as chips, savoury crackers, cakes, pastries, fries, sodas, and store-bought fruit juices. His body doesn’t need them, and worst of all, they contain a lot of other ingredients such as preservatives or food colouring.

When you cook at home, practise healthier cooking methods using less oil such as steaming, boiling, baking, or stir-frying. Rather than using salt or sugar to bring out the flavours in his food, use spices instead. You should also provide him with meats that have less fat such as chicken or lean cuts from meats.

Neglecting your child’s digestive health may result in various problems in the short term (indigestion, diarrhoea, etc.) and the long term (malnutrition, chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, etc.). Remember, a better digestive health means a healthier and happier child!

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