Written by Jo Webster
My name is Jo Webster and I recently started wondergut.com – born out of a passionate desire to spread information about the magic of our gut microbiome – about what a “healthy” microbiome can do to support our mental, physical and emotional health.
Information about this is just exploding at a scientific level, but it is not filtering down to us non-scientists fast enough for my liking. Those of us raising kids and feeding kids hold the power to influence the microbial health of the next generation, gut health in children should be a focus. WE are the ones doing the food shopping. Deciding what we eat. What our kids eat. And the choices we are making really matter.
We have 4 children – our daughter is 14, sweet toothed and teetering on vegetarianism, our eldest son is 12 and a fervent carnivore, our second son is 9 and pretty laid back about what, when and how much he eats. Our youngest son is 6 and we are just testing him for gluten and dairy intolerance. It would be fair to say that it is not possible to please all of our children all of the time in the food department!
As more research is done on the trillions of microscopic bacteria living in our guts, it becomes more obvious that what we eat and drink influences the health and diversity of our microbes – they are the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle – the crucial interface between our environment, our food and our health or lack of it.
They influence the health of our gut lining, the extent to which we can absorb and utilise nutrients from our food, our levels of vitamins and hormones, the levels of our enzymes, neurotransmitters and brain chemicals, our levels of stress and anxiety, the health and rigour of our immune system, which of our genes are expressed and whether we will be at greater risk of suffering from a wide range of chronic health issues including depression, OCD, epilepsy, Type 2 Diabetes, autoimmune illnesses, allergies and, as we age, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The most thrilling thing to me, though is that whilst our gut microbes have a massive influence over who and how we are, we, too, can have a massive influence over how healthy and diverse THEY are. In so doing, we can really maximise our chances of good health.
So, how do we do that? And, more to the point, how do we do this for our kids? How can we build the bridge between gut health and children? My attack here is two-pronged. Firstly, I will go through the foods I am introducing or increasing. Secondly, I will look at HOW to have the “guts” to do this. I am not going to pretend that this is easy. It is not.
Our family has been working on this for a year or so now and it would have been too overwhelming for us all to try to implement this all at once. Building strong gut health in children takes time. One step at a time is fine. It is good. We learn as we go along, the children gradually buy in to the learning process and engage rather than feeling railroaded. I guess the message is don’t do nothing because you feel you can only do a little. Do a little and see where it leads.
Prebiotics are a specific type of fibre, which can be broadly defined as non-digestible carbohydrates and our gut bacteria like to ferment them, which can cause changes to our gut microbiota. Fibre is important for our microbes. It survives the small intestine and makes it to the large intestine, where most of our gut microbes hang out. They digest it for us, releasing nutrients and at the same time making vital by-products that nourish our gut lining and do many other things around the body. Prebiotic fibre is special because it stimulates beneficial bacteria to thrive. It targets the “goodies”.
Onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, endive – there are others but this is a great start. I have started buying Jerusalem artichokes and baking or roasting them and seeking out recipes that involve them. The Jerusalem artichoke cake turned out to be a step too far though! We are getting used to onion and garlic breath and putting more of these on salads and in any meal I can. Leeks too. Our kids have amazed me – the more I talk to them and share what I am learning, the more they are prepared to give things a go.
We all need to eat more vegetables. And as many varieties as possible. In as many different colours as possible (the different colours relate to the differing range of phytochemicals they contain and these are very good for us). Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, thinks that instead of counting calories, we should be counting colouries and eating as many different vegetable colouries as we can. Some vegetables can be an acquired taste. I now tell our kids that they cannot expect to love everything that they eat. Food is crucial fuel and we need to give our body what it genuinely needs. And that is more vegetables.
Gradually increase the proportion of your shop that is vegetables – try new types. Keep it varied. The tricky bit is not simply increasing the number of vegetables in the fridge and then in the bin at the end of the week but actually cooking them and serving them. I often find I have an earworm at meal times – Oasis “no one said it would be easy……”
A slow cooked bone broth or a piece of meat slow cooked with the bone still in releases beneficial amino acids from the bone. One amino acid, in particular, glutamine, is vital for helping to repair the gut lining and retain its integrity. A resilient gut lining is our best line of defence when it comes to warding off unwanted visitors like pathogenic bacteria and parasites. I have started doing slower cooked meat recipes, not only because of the amino acids, but also because I can cook it with a whole load of vegetables tucked around it to increase vegetable intake.
Look for cuts of meat that slow cook well. And cook with root vegetables of all types crammed around it. Bone broth is great too – simmer a chicken carcass with a chopped onion and a chopped carrot thrown in (all day if possible) and then use this liquid as the base for a soup.
I know, I know – everyone is on about these. They are so easy to make though and are teeming with a whole ecosystem of lactobacillus bacteria which are great for our gut. I have started with grated carrot and ginger. It took about 7 minutes and it is now served on our plates at lunchtimes. Some of our kids are even eating it!
A couple of Kilner/mason jars and any range of veg you fancy and some salt. Look up Sandor Katz online and away you go. This increases vegetable variety and our intake of beneficial bacteria at the same time.
After reading that dark chocolate contains a great deal LESS sugar as well as containing many more polyphenols (good for gut microbes) than milk chocolate, I have started to try to get us all used to the taste of dark chocolate. This is a work in progress. We now only have dark chocolate in the house. My taste buds have started to change (it took about 4 months I think). My theory is, if we can get our children more used to dark chocolate now whilst they are under our influence, it may help to reduce their desire for the extremely sugary stuff which also contains much lower levels of polyphenols. It is also easier to eat just a few squares of dark chocolate and leave the rest for another day than it is to do the same with milk chocolate.
Feeding kids with gut health in mind is not for the faint-hearted. I have had to find ways to keep my resolve strong. Others around us aren’t doing it. School isn’t doing it. Society isn’t doing it. We are swimming against the tide. One thing that has really helped us all, has been me reading about the gut microbiome – there are so many resources available now online – right here at the gut stuff for a start! The more we learn, the more we can explain to our kids so they understand WHY this matters so much. And the more I learn, the more determined I have become.
This works much better in my experience than do as I say. I thought we ate healthily until I started my gut microbiome magical mystery tour. I have had to take a cold hard look at my diet and so has my husband and we have made changes. We are changing our behaviour around food. And that is hard work. BUT if we want to teach our kids good food habits and set their taste buds to seek out healthy nourishing gut friendly fodder, we need to be improving our habits too.
And by this, I am not talking about hypothermia. It is a difficult line to tread between not being too invested in outcomes at each meal and calmly and resolutely holding a line. I have found this so much easier to do the more knowledge about microbes I have gathered. I am also learning to focus on process, not outcome. Not all kids will eat everything at every meal. Some kids may eat little at the odd meal but generally, this doesn’t happen every day. I put a very small piece of fish on my eldest son’s plate once a week for seven years. SEVEN YEARS before one day, instead of ignoring it (or when he was very small, throwing it on the floor), he ate it all and asked for more. We are applying the same principle to a wide range of vegetables, spices, herbs, and fermented foods. All we ask is that they try it and if they don’t like it, they periodically keep trying it because our tastes change as we grow. Why bother? Because diversity of diet is absolutely key to diversity of our gut microbiome and diversity of our gut microbiome appears to be absolutely key to health.
This sounds so simple but it has been a light bulb moment for me. It is generally accepted that self-control is a finite resource so eventually, we crumble. This means having unhealthy sugary treats or snacks in the house will inevitably lead to our eating them. I am trying to be disciplined whilst food shopping so that we don’t have to be constantly disciplined at home. If it is not there, it doesn’t call to us from the cupboard. And then we eat something microbially nourishing instead.
This is an example of how we are taking one small step at a time. At some point in the last year, I got a blender that could make smoothies and my husband, daughter and I are now having a green leaf smoothie in the mornings. The 3 boys tried it once and did not want to do so again. One normal glass was too much for them. So was half a glass. So was quarter of a glass. I left it for a few months and then I had a brainwave. I found some old shot glasses and asked them to just drink a shot glass of it each morning. The novelty of the tiny glasses, coupled with the small amount of smoothie has meant that they are now happy to do this. I suspect it means come the age of 18, they may be all too familiar with how to “down” a shot of something interesting but it has shown me that taking small steps is the way travel.
Follow Jo’s exploration of the magic of the gut microbiome at: