Health professionals often tout the value of fiber for adult digestive health, weight management, and disease prevention. But did you know that fiber is equally important for children? Even beginning in the preschool years, young people benefit from eating plenty of high-fiber foods, setting the stage for continued healthy eating patterns throughout their lives
WHAT IS FIBER?
Also known as roughage, fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods that pushes through the digestive system, absorbing water along the way and easing bowel movements.There are two broad types of fiber — soluble and insoluble. Both types are present in all plant foods, but rarely in equal proportions. Each yield different benefits. Insoluble fiber keeps us regular and speeds the elimination of toxic waste through the colon. Soluble fiber reduces blood cholesterol and regulates sugar intake.
HOW MUCH FIBER DO CHILDREN NEED?
Little ones up to six months of age do not need to consume fiber. But when infants head into the second six months of their lives, they’ll work their way up to about 5 grams of fiber per day by age 1. More sophisticated toddlers, age 1 to 3 years, need a hefty increase to about 19 grams per day, and then further work their way up to 25 grams per day between the ages of 4 and 8 years.
Post-tykehood, girls and boys differ somewhat in their fiber needs. Girls age 9 to 18 can get away with 26 grams of fiber each day, while the magic fiber number for boys is 31 grams between 9–13 years, and then another jump to 38 grams when they’re full-blown teens of 14–18 years old. (Whew! That’s a lot of the rough stuff!)
WHAT ARE THE BEST SOURCES OF FIBER?
Think straight from the earth on this one — plant foods, plant foods, and more plant foods. The less processed, the better. Fruits and vegetables (with the skins!) get an A+ for their fiber composition. Unrefined grains like oats, barley, and whole wheat are also fiber superheroes. And don’t forget beans, nuts, and legumes — the rock stars of fiber.
Foods that contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving are considered “high-fiber.” Those with slightly less (2.5 – 5 grams) are considered “good sources” of fiber. While the recommendations for children may sound like a gut-buster, fiber can add up quickly, particularly in disguise as a healthy and well-balanced diet. Which could look something like this:
BREAKFAST: a whole grain waffle topped with yogurt and blueberries, or a piece of wholewheat toast and a banana paired with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
LUNCH: whole-wheat macaroni noodles mixed with peas and cottage cheese and a fresh fruit salad, or a sandwich made with whole-wheat bread, and some baby carrots and sliced apples.
DINNER: roasted chicken served with brown rice and steamed broccoli, or whole-wheat pasta tossed in olive oil with cherry tomatoes, sliced olives, and crumbly cheese. Throw some white beans in there for even better measure.
SNACKS can be a good source of fiber too. Try a whole grain cereal (with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving) for a finger food, yogurt mixed with berries and topped with sliced almonds, or straight-up, unadulterated fresh fruits and vegetables.
BUT MY CHILD WON’T EAT THAT
I hear you. The smaller folk can be a tad on the picky side, and yes, that can make their daily dose of fiber more than a little lackluster. With some creative problem solving, (just like we parents do every single day), your more discriminating child can also earn a gold star for fiber.
If you look at the nutrition labels of common foods you give your child(ren), you’ll get some good ideas. But here are a few fiber boosters to get you started:
Medium-sized apple (3 grams)
1 cup Multigrain Cheerios (3 grams)
1 cup brown rice (3 grams)
1 slice whole wheat bread (2–3 grams)
½ cup oatmeal (4 grams)
Whole grain waffle (such as Kashi) (3.5 grams)
½ cup peas (4 grams)
½ cup lentils (5 grams)
½ cup black beans (6 grams)
3 cups popped corn (2–3 grams)
The fiber doesn’t “bulk” here. Try sweet potatoes, quinoa, fresh or frozen berries, sliced peppers and baby carrots for more whole-food, kid-approved fare. Ultimately, and as you well know, involving your child(ren) in shopping for, selecting, and preparing foods is key. Offer a variety of options at meals and avoid food coercion, or otherwise bribing your child to eat something they don’t like. Keep food and mealtime (with fiber) fun!
Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.