Improving Gut Health for Kids and Teenagers

June 12, 2022 8 min read

Improving Gut Health for Kids and Teenagers - Layer Origin Nutrition

Improving Gut Health for Kids and Teenagers 

With busy schedules related to school, work, and extracurricular activities, making time to develop healthy lifestyle behaviors to support optimal health and well-being can be a challenge. Consuming a well-balanced diet, being physically active, and getting adequate sleep are important for the health, well-being, and optimal gut function of your children and adolescents. 

Learning strategies to incorporate these practices into your family’s daily routine can positively impact the well-being not only of your children, but of yourself as well.

Importance of Nutrition

During childhood and adolescence, a well-balanced diet that contains nutrient-dense foods is important for normal growth and development. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages children and adolescents to follow a healthy dietary pattern that contains a variety of foods and beverages from all of the food groups and to limit intake of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.  

Limit Ultra-Processed Foods

When children and adolescents consume a diet that is high in ultra-processed foods, containing added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats, it can displace nutrient-rich foods in the diet that are needed to support growth. Consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with alterations in the composition and function of the gut microbiota. In addition, ultra-processed foods are associated with numerous adverse health outcomes, including increased cardio-metabolic risks and asthma in children and adolescents.

Focus on Plant-Based Foods

To help promote the gut health of your child, focus on increasing plant-based foods in the diet, such as: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Plant-based foods provide the body with nutrients that nourish the gut, including soluble and insoluble fiber, resistant starches, phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Support Your Child’s Gut with Prebiotics

Many plant-based foods are also excellent sources of prebiotics, as they provide the body with fiber and non-digestible carbohydrates that feed the intestinal microbiota. Prebiotics are fermented by the gut microbiota into short-chain fatty acids, which have positive health impacts on the gastrointestinal tract and throughout the body. Encouraging your child to consume foods rich in prebiotics, such as: asparagus, garlic, onion, Jerusalem artichokes, wheat, barley, rye, beans and peas, honey, bananas, soybean, human’s and cow’s milk can help support your child’s gut health.

Include Dietary Sources of Probiotics

You can also promote the gut health of your children and adolescents by including foods in the diet that contain healthy bacteria, called probiotics. Foods that contain natural sources of probiotics include: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, tempeh, aged cheeses, and buttermilk. 

Add in Lean Proteins and Healthy Fats

In addition to plant-based foods, you can support your child’s nutrition needs by including a variety of lean proteins and healthy fats in the diet. Lean sources of protein include: fish and seafood, turkey, chicken, eggs, pork, lean red meat, soy, tofu, beans, and skim or low-fat dairy products. Healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, can be found in cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, as well as walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds. 

Promote Optimal Hydration

Maintaining adequate hydration is important for supporting the health and well-being of children and adolescents. Water is an essential nutrient with many important roles in the body.  Water is important for thermoregulation in the body, cognitive function to support learning, the removal of waste from the body in urine, and the function of the gastrointestinal tract. Despite the importance of hydration for health and optimal body function, many children and adolescents do not meet the dietary reference intake for water consumption. To help your child increase water intake consider the following:

  • Encourage your child to carry a water bottle throughout the day and to take breaks when playing or participating in physical activity to hydrate.
  • Try making infused waters with fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs to add natural flavors to drinking waters. Combinations such as raspberry and lemon, cranberry and orange, or cucumber, lemon, and mint provide a refreshing drink alternative that may help increase your child’s fluid intake.
  • Include fruits and vegetables that have a high-water content with meals and snacks. Watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, celery, tomatoes, and cucumbers all provide the body with water, along with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Encourage Physical Activity

Participating in regular physical activity is known to provide many health benefits for children and adolescents, including: improved cardiovascular health, increased muscular strength and endurance, improved bone health, enhanced cognition and attention, as well as a reduced risk for the development of chronic diseases, obesity, and depression.

Physical Activity and Gut Health

In regards to gut health, research in adults suggests that physical activity is an environmental factor that may alter the gut microbiota and have a positive impact on health. Changes in the gut microbiome associated with exercise include an enriched microflora diversity and an increased quantity of beneficial microbial species within the gut.

Although further studies are needed to clarify how exercise alters the gut microbiome in children and adolescents, research utilizing animal models has found an enhanced benefit on the gut microbiome composition when exercise is initiated earlier in life compared to adulthood.

Recommended Amounts of Physical Activity

Despite the known benefits of regular physical activity, it is estimated that 80% of adults and children in the United States are not participating in adequate amounts of activity on a daily basis.

The 2nd edition of the  Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, recommends that preschool-aged children (ages 3-5 years) be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development. Children and adolescents (ages 6-17 years) should participate in 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.  This includes aerobic exercise to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, activities to build muscular strength and endurance, and exercises to support bone health.

To help increase the amount of physical activity your child engages in daily consider finding ways to be active together as a family.  For example, go for walks or bike rides together after dinner, explore local parks and hiking trails, and plan family vacations that involve physical activity. Also, encourage your child to try different types of physical activity to help your child find activities he/she enjoys and wants to spend time engaged in.

Limit Screen Time

Be mindful of the amount of time your children and adolescents are spending in front of a screen each day; including time spent watching TV, playing video games, scrolling social media, and using smart phones and tablets.  Recent data indicates that children and adolescents ages 8-18 are spending over 7.5 hours each day on screens for entertainment related purposes. The development of obesity is associated with sedentary lifestyles and excess caloric intake.   Lack of physical activity may be an influencing factor on the gut microbial populations seen with obesity.         

Screen Time Recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that preschool children ages 2-5 be limited to one hour of high-quality programming per day. For children ages 6 and over, it is recommended that screen time be limited based upon the type of media and purpose for use (educational vs. entertainment).  In addition, screen time should not be allowed to interfere with healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as regular physical activity, sleep, and time with family and friends.  To help establish media related goals and screen time limits for your family, consider developing a Family Media Use Plan.

Ensure Adequate Sleep

In children and adolescents, lack of sleep is associated with learning, attention, and behavior problems, as well as an increased risk for developing hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and mental health concerns.  Insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality is also associated with gut dysbiosis and increased levels of the hormone cortisol.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that preschool children ages 3-5 get 10-13 hours of sleep per night, children ages 6-12 years get 9-12 hours of sleep each night, and teenagers ages 13-18 sleep 8-10 hours per night to promote optimal health. 

Create a Sleep Routine

Helping your child establish a regular sleep routine may help promote gut health and the function of the immune system, lead to improved behavior, attention, and regulation of emotions, and support overall mental and physical well-being. If you are concerned that your children is not getting adequate sleep each night, consider trying the sleep-hygiene strategies below:

  • Have your child develop a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at approximately the same time each day, including the weekends.
  • Create an ideal sleeping environment by making the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Start dimming the lights in the hour before bedtime to help your child prepare for sleep.
  • Keep electronics, including TVs, smartphones, tablets, gaming systems, and computers, out of the bedroom and limit their use in the hour leading up to bedtime.

Key Take Aways

To support the health and well-being of your children and adolescents, including optimal gut function, focus on increasing plant-based foods in the diet and maintaining hydration throughout the day.  Encourage your child to be physically active throughout the day and be mindful of the amount of screen time your child engages in.  Finally, make sure your child is getting adequate sleep each night to promote optimal health. 

As a parent, you can serve as a role model by eating a nutritious diet, being physically active, and getting enough sleep each night.  Adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors together can result in positive health benefits for the entire family.

Written by:

Mandy TylerRegistered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, Licensed Athletic Trainer, and Certified Exercise Physiologist.


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