By Dr. Joanna McMillan

There has never been such a focus on the importance of gut health for both kids and adults.

A healthy gut is essential to help bolster overall physical and mental health. The gut is the major barrier between the outside world and you, and with some 70% of your immune system centred in your gut, it’s imperative to fuel and protect it appropriately, starting with children.

There are strong links between what’s going on in the gut and mental health – people’s mood, brain power and brain performance. A healthy diet can be the catalyst for a healthy gut which holds the rest of the body in good stead to be healthy.

So what age is it important to start focusing on gut health for children? The answer is while the baby is in the womb!

When babies are growing in the womb, they are covered in a thick, white, waxy coating called Vernix caseosa, that is rich in special branched chain fats. In the later stages of the pregnancy this coating sloughs off into the amniotic fluid and is ingested by the baby.

We now know these fats are crucial for the healthy development of the gut. Breast milk also contains these branched chain fats, helping to create a strong, protective gut lining and promote the development of a healthy gut microbiome.

Premature babies are born still covered with Vernix caseosa and have missed out on these critical fats. Serious gut problems often ensue. Fortunately new research is showing that supplementing these branched fats can help to treat the problem.

When babies are growing in the womb, they are covered in a thick, white, waxy coating called Vernix caseosa, that is rich in special branched chain fats.

As children grow, it’s important to continue their positive gut health journey. Here are some simple tips to help improve and bolster your child’s gut health.

Colour is king! A variety of vegies is key

Kids and vegetables don’t always get along, but I can’t stress enough how important it is that they eat a variety of vegetables as soon as they can start eating solids. The key word here is variety. You feel like a winning parent when your child swallows their vegies, but instead of just eating the same veg you know they like each time, it’s actually really important they are eating a variety.

Most kids aren’t eating enough vegies and the key to getting them to meet their recommended intake is to make vegies delicious! Integrate them into the meal, cook them with extra virgin olive oil and season with plenty of herbs, try them with different textures such as raw, lightly cooked or mashed. Get kids on a path of healthy eating and you help set them up for good gut health.

Shift to whole foods

Life is busy. While there’s nothing more stressful than the morning dash to get breakfast ready for the kids, make lunches, get everyone changed – including yourself – and then out the door to start the morning taxi service, when we’re time poor we can often rush into grabbing the easiest or quickest foods for lunchboxes.

While some processed foods make healthy eating easier and are good for us, wholegrain breakfast cereals or canned baked beans for example, it’s beneficial to steer clear of ultra-processed foods – the pre-made foods that have been refined and processed – and shift to whole foods instead. So instead of packing fruit juice to drink, go with whole fruits instead, or pack a variety of vegetables with hummus or avocado dip as a morning snack instead of packaged biscuits. Wholegrain breads are also beneficial to a child’s gut, providing fibre to fuel their healthy gut bugs and keeping bowel habits regular, and are a much better and healthier option than white bread.

Get kids on a path of healthy eating and you help set them up for good gut health.

Sit down for a meal

Encouraging kids to sit at the table and take their time to eat is beneficial to their overall gut health. The problem with kids who eat on the run all the time is they often just snack on easier, packaged options – and when it comes to eating a proper meal they’re not hungry or they just pick at their food. So, snacking less throughout the day, eating the right snacks and finding time to come together as a family to sit down for a meal several times a week is important.

Get outdoors and get active

To have a healthy gut, you need to be active. I admit it’s really hard if you’re juggling lockdown home schooling and working from home, but daytime kids TV and online gaming must be in moderation. If your children aren’t exercising enough it can lead to all sorts of gut issues. Kids guts need to be stimulated to work efficiently so get them outdoors to run around.

Emerging research

Keep an eye out for emerging research and innovation in this area to help improve gut health. A new product to market is Vernx Peribiotic, which is the world’s first all-encompassing gut supplement, which uses the same natural branched fats that humans ingest as babies to help support a healthy gut. More time and research is going into this area as we learn how valuable and imperative a healthy gut is to overall physical and mental health.