Does your child complain of feeling ravenous only hours after a big meal? Do they have trouble concentrating in class or routinely arrive home from school tired and cranky? If so, lack of dietary fiber in their diet may be the culprit.
We always hear about the fiber needs of adults, but children need to get enough fiber, too. People tend to think of fiber as helpful for regularity when actually it offers a lot more health benefits. For children these include regulating blood sugar, improving mood, and providing energy that can enhance their performance in the classroom and on the playing field. There are important long-term health benefits, too, because a fiber-rich diet helps children establish a nutritious eating pattern while they are growing that later may help reduce their risk of becoming overweight, developing heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.
How much fiber does your child need? Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend people get 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed per day, which for children translates to 19 grams of fiber for those ages 1-3, 25 grams for ages 4-8, 26 grams for girls ages 9–18, 31 grams for boys ages 9-13 years old, and 38 grams of fiber for boys ages 9-13. In the U.S. most children (and adults, too) don’t come close to meeting even half of their daily fiber needs because our American diet is dominated by processed foods that have been stripped of their fiber content. Take an apple for example: A medium whole apple with the peel has 3.3 grams of fiber, which slips to 1.7 grams when the peel is removed. A ½ cup serving of applesauce has only 1.5 grams of fiber, but worse still is a ¾ cup serving of apple juice that bottoms out at 0.2 grams of fiber!
The good news is that shopping for kid-friendly fiber-rich foods is getting easier. Supermarkets now carry all kinds of products that are a good source of fiber, including kid-friendly cereals, chips, breads, pastas - even orange juice. Product names and claims can be deceiving though, so to know whether a food contains fiber be sure to read the nutrition facts label on the package. Look at dietary fiber (found right beneath carbohydrate) and if it is 5 grams of fiber or more per serving then it is in fact a good source of fiber, based on the guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration. If a bread or snack item contains 1 gram of fiber or less, comparison shop for a higher-fiber alternative.
As a dietitian and the mother of three here are some of my best tips for helping kids get plenty of fiber each day:
One of the simplest ways to add fiber to your child’s diet is to start their day off with a high-fiber cereal. Many cereals now contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, and for a really big fiber boost, rather than top their cereal with a ½ medium banana containing 1 gram of fiber give them raspberries, which contain a whopping 8 grams of fiber per cup!
At lunch, make sandwiches on whole wheat bread containing 5 grams of fiber instead of white bread that has no fiber at all. Swap in whole wheat pretzels for white flour varieties and for good measure why not include a piece of high-fiber fruit like a fresh apple? Choose fresh fruit over fruit juice or canned fruits that have been peeled and processed.
Try making homemade pizza on a whole-wheat tortilla or serve veggies with a low-fat dip. For an on-the-go snack swap out their usual granola bar containing about 2 grams of fiber and give them a tasty high fiber bar like Gnu Food’s Flavor and Fiber Bars, which are kid-friendly and loaded with 12 grams of fiber!
Substitute whole wheat pasta for traditional white, and along with it provide at least one serving of vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus. Kids love soup so why not serve them one that’s delicious and high in fiber? Skip chicken noodle soup which has no fiber and go instead with a cup of minestrone soup that gives them 6 grams of fiber!
Tip: Gradually introduce high-fiber foods and ingredients into your child's diet with the goal of offering at least two foods with fiber at each meal and at least one at snack time. There are plenty of tasty foods that are good sources of fiber: fruits like pears and berries, vegetables, beans, peas, nuts and whole-grain breakfast cereals, waffles, breads and crackers.
For more tips, delicious high fiber meal plans, family-friendly recipes, and proven ways to lose weight and look great, check out my latest book The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear – with Fiber!
Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a registered dietitian in private practice in New York City and the author of two bestselling books: The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear – with fiber (Hyperion), and The F-Factor Diet (Putnam). Follow Tanya on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and visit her website Ffactor.com. For nutrition news you can use, product tips, restaurant reviews and delicious recipes sign up for Tanya’s weekly newsletter!