In general, the gut functions to digest and absorb nutrients from food. However, do you know that it also plays a major role in defending your child against harmful pathogens? Indeed, around 70 to 80 percent of his immune system is actually located in the gut!
Thus, keeping the gut healthy is vital for the immunity and overall health of your child. And the key to a healthy gut is a well-balanced gut microbiota, which is a ‘population’ of microorganisms living in the digestive system. Several dietary factors play key roles in maintaining gut microbiota. Sounds complicated? Not at all. Just remember that proper nutrition is important for your child to have a healthy gut to enable him to grow strong and resilient.
How the gut protects
Pathogens, which are harmful bacteria and viruses, can enter the body in several ways, including through the gut. The immune system reacts immediately to ensure that these ‘invaders’ are stopped before they can cause any illnesses to your child. A healthy gut plays a major role in this immune reaction, capable of breaking down potentially toxic compounds or blocking pathogens from entering the body.
A community of 100 trillion microorganisms in the gut, called the gut microbiota, plays a crucial role in defining a healthy gut. Among these microorganisms are 1000 different types of bacteria, consisting of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria. Yes, there are ‘good’ bacteria! A healthy gut should have a balance of about 85% of ‘good’ bacteria to enable it to function optimally and develop a healthy immune system.
When an imbalance in gut microbiota (dysbiosis) occurs (e.g. during inappropriate antibiotic use), the number of ‘bad’ bacteria over-powers the beneficial ones. This can have a negative impact on child health, and has been linked to an increase in gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal discomfort), infections, or even excessive fatigue or tiredness.
How nutrition helps
Having recognised the vital role that the gut microbiota plays in maintaining a healthy gut, you will certainly be asking how you can improve your child’s gut health. Healthy nutrition is the answer. For infants, breastfeeding colonises the baby’s gut with good bacteria from the mother, thereby providing the initial seeding of gut microbiota.
As your child grows up, a number of dietary factors are vital in keeping his gut microbiota in balance. This includes a diet that is balanced, moderate, and varied. You can provide a balanced meal by including all food groups according to the food pyramid, feeding him with appropriate and moderate amounts, and ensuring a variety in diet to get different nutrients needed by the body.
Besides these general healthy nutrition practices, it is also important to pay attention to specific dietary factors that are important in keeping the gut healthy. One direct way to increase the number of good bacteria in the gut is to provide your child with foods containing these microorganisms. Known as probiotics, these are live microorganisms (mostly beneficial bacteria) that are able to nourish the gut microbiota and maintain its balance when consumed in adequate amounts. Foods with added probiotics include cultured or fermented milk products and milk powder.
Dietary fibres found in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables are also helpful in keeping the gut healthy. Some dietary fibres are able to function as prebiotics, i.e. serve as ‘food’ for the good bacteria and promote their growth. Several foods and beverages, including milk powder, may contain added prebiotics. Providing your child with foods containing probiotics and prebiotics can potentially have positive effects on his gut health. To look out for these foods, read the label and identify foods containing these ingredients.
The immune system is intricately linked to digestive health. Taking care of your child’s gut health is important for him to stay healthy and strong, so that he can explore and learn from his surroundings and develop greater resilience. This in turn requires that the child adopts healthy dietary practices to promote and maintain a balanced gut microbiota. Do not ignore the gut!
An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.