That gut feeling: Understanding how our food habits influence our health

the gastrointestinal (GI) systemcommonly known as the gut, is made up of hollow organs joined together all the way from your mouth to the anus. The hollow organs that make up the GI tract are the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus. The liver, pancreas and gallbladder are the solid organs of the digestive system.

What is a healthy gut?

A healthy gut is one where

  • the internal lining of the digestive tract, that is the stomach and intestines, is intact with no ulcers and inflammation.
  • There is a population of good microbiome – colonies of healthy bacteria populate the small intestine and colon
  • optimal secretion of the digestive enzymes ensuring proper absorption and assimilation of nutrients
  • good bowel movement and lack of stomach aches, constipation or acid reflux

good health is necessary for everyone, but especially for children, to ensure optimal immunity, mental clarity and cognition, good mood, better energy levels and restful sleep.

Seventy per cent of the immune system is in the gut and it is responsible for giving children the armor to fight infections and contagious diseases. During the ongoing pandemic, it is therefore essential to focus on good gut health for the young ones.

The gut is also the seat for the secretion of neurotransmitters and happy hormones, giving children the ability to learn and concentrate better, for mental clarity, cognitive development and also to keep them happy.

Besides this, a healthy gut ensures that there are no micronutrient deficiencies such as anaemia, low vitamin D and B levels. This prevents fatigue and imparts renewed energy and enthusiasm to children.

So, how do we ensure good gut health, especially among smaller children?

Cutting off the gut destroyers

Encourage your children to refrain from consuming packaged and processed foods (food additives and colours, refined grains, liquid oils, excess sugar inflame the gut) and replacing it with freshly-made breakfast and snacks. This can be done by educating the children about the harmful effects of industrially produced food and keeping a ready supply of homemade nutritious and healthy bites, dessert and breakfast options handy.

Eating plants for plant enzymes and fiber (prebiotics)

Children can be encouraged to add more vegetables and salads in interesting forms such as topping it with healthy cheese, olive oil, homemade dressing (made with honey, vinegar, mustard seeds, turmeric), hummus, etc.

Vegetables can be cooked as soups, broths and cutlets or marinated and skewered in an oven, baked with cheese or just made in curries. All these forms of vegetables are delicious as part of main meals.

Root vegetables such as sweet potato, yam can be made into tasty and interesting chaats; beetroot can be used to make a refreshing drink with apples and mint.

Fruits are favorites with children and colorful fruits such as berries, pomegranate, grapes, oranges, melons, papaya, kiwi, pears and plantains can be a go-to snack.

Children can be encouraged to chew their food. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

Add millets such as ragi, besan, amaranth, buckwheat and jowar as pancakes, crepes, parathas and even ladoos. Stuff the pancakes, parathas with green leafy vegetables, spring onions, garlic, tomatoes, carrots, peppers and cilantro for added benefit.

Serve the beneficial bacteria (probiotics)

A serving of fermented food such as home-made mango and lemon pickle, kanji, kokum or mint chutney and set curds and buttermilk made at home can be encouraged. The emphasis is on home-made food here because they are free from preservatives and additives.

Good fats to restore the gut microbiome

Do you know that healthy fats are the food for good bacteriahelping them multiply and improve the overall health of the child?

Add the nourishment of good fats to the meals and snacks of children with healthier fats containing short-chain fatty acids and medium chain triglycerides such as cow ghee sourced from local cows, home-made white butter and coconut oil, olive oil, sesame and cold -pressed mustard oil. These healthier fats can replace refined oils, industrial butter, margarine and dressings.

Another good source of fat is nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, cashew nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and fox nuts can be added to soups, broths, and salads. Roasted spicy nuts make for excellent snacks. Nuts and seeds can also be converted into delicious ladoos and granola bars.

In addition to the above, children can be encouraged to chew their food and hydrate well to aid digestion. After all, a happy gut means a happy child!

(Manjari Chandra is a consultant, functional nutrition and nutritional medicine, Manjari Wellness, New Delhi. Her column will appear every fortnight)

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