Over the past 50 years our fibre consumption has dropped drastically because of new processing methods for foods, especially grains. Most breads, cereals and baked goods are now very low in fibre. When grains were processed differently and diets were more plant-based than animal-based, people would consume almost 100 grams of fibre a day. Now most North Americans average only five to 15 grams a day.
Dietary fibre is the part of the plant food that our body does not digest. You can find it in foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts and whole grains. There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Both are important for a healthy diet.
Soluble fibre acts like a sponge. It absorbs water in the intestines and forms a gluey gel that picks up cholesterol and carries it out of the body. Oats, beans and other legumes, and some fruits and vegetables are all good sources of soluble fibre.
Insoluble fibre acts like a broom because it doesn’t dissolve in water. It adds bulk and softness to the stools and keeps them moving along comfortably, preventing constipation. Examples of insoluble dietary fibre would be nuts, seeds, brown rice and whole grains.
Many foods contain both soluble and insoluble fibre. For example the skins of potatoes, tomatoes, pears, and apples are insoluble but the inside or pulp is soluble fibre.
Eating high-fibre foods is a healthy habit for kids to form at a young age and it carries benefits throughout their lives.
Children are becoming overweight at an alarming rate, and insufficent dietary fibre is partly to blame. Obesity is uncommon in countries with high-fibre diets. Foods that are high in fibre are filling and discourage overeating – and fibre itself has no calories.
Insoluble fibre’s sponge-like properties promote regularity. Soft and bulky stools are typical for people with high-fibre diets, and prevent constipation and straining during a bowel movement, which makes toilet training a much more pleasurable experience.
Fibre also helps regulate blood sugar levels, which helps kids learn and behave better. It also reduces the risk for some cancers.
How much fibre does my child need each day?
Here’s an easy formula: Child’s age + 5 = # of grams of fibre. For example, a six-year-old should get about 11 grams of daily fibre. Kids older than 15 need 25 to 30 grams of fibre per day.
How do I increase fibre in ways my kids will like?
Do it gradually over a couple of weeks and most important, ensure that their water intake increases as well. A drastic increase in fibre can result in gas pain and urgent bowel movements. You’ll also have more success if you use foods your kids already like. In my house, we tend to eat a lot of green beans because my five-year-old loves them raw. A half cup equals two grams of fibre. Here are some other fibre-rich snacks.
Raspberries - 4 grams
Just a half cup, either in yogurt or plain in a bowl.
Roasted chick peas - 6 grams
Thoroughly rinse and then toast ½ cup of canned chick peas in a medium hot non-stick fry pan without oil. Shake on a little seasoning spice and give as a snack. (*Make your own seasoning spice by combining 1 tsp seasoned salt such as Lowry’s, ½ tsp paprika, ¼ tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp parsley and ¼ tsp chili powder.)
Pears - 6 grams
Cut up a Bosc or Anjou, (leave on the skin where all the insoluble fibre is), then warm up ¼ cup of almond butter, peanut butter or sunflower seed butter in the microwave for 30–45 seconds. Give the spread a stir and dip away.
Popcorn - 2 grams
Skip the oil and butter and add a dash of seasoning spice to two cups of popped corn.
Sweet potato fries - 6 grams
Cut one medium sweet potato into thin strips, toss in a bowl with 1 tbsp of olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and spread onto a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast in a 425° oven for 30–40 minutes, turning once.
Soluble fibre is sometimes more challenging to incorporate into your family’s diet because the texture of whole grains tends to be less tolerable to kids. If possible, introduce whole grain breads early so your child doesn’t become attached to the “soft”, white, processed breads. Same thing goes with cereal – avoid the sweetened, low-fibre ones altogether if possible. There are many naturally sweetened, high-fibre cereals available – take a look in the organic section of your grocery store and try them stirred into probiotic yogurt – topped with raspberries!
Published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2011.