A topic that can often cause confusion for parents is about fibre for babies & toddlers & young children. We often hear about fibre being beneficial for adults but many parents are worried about offering fibre. Especially wholegrain bread, pasta and rice to their little ones. In this blog I’ll cover the basics of fibre for children. Also how to include more of it in your family’s diet.
What is fibre and why is it beneficial?
Simply put, fibre is the name given to a group of carbohydrates that our bodies don’t digest in the small intestine. There are a variety of different groups of fibre.
The health benefits of fibre are related to their impact on our gut microbiota; the beneficial bacteria in our gut. As fibre is not digested in our gut, it is fermented, which produces compounds called “short-chain fatty acids”. These can have a beneficial impact on the levels of insulin and lipids in our blood stream, which over time can support energy balance and protect against cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Fibre can also help improve symptoms of constipation. It can help to absorb water and allow stools to move quicker through our colon. For some children suffering with constipation, eating more foods high in fibre or drinking more water, could help to relieve constipation.
How are wholegrains different from fibre?
While fibre is a type of carbohydrate, wholegrains refer to a type of grain (e.g. rice, pasta, barley, spelt). WHOLEgrains are grains that have NOT been processed to remove the outer layer. Which is the case for most “white” varieties of carbohydrates. This outer layer contains much of the grain’s fibre which is why wholegrains are thought to play a beneficial role in our health. That’s not to say that white varieties don’t contain any nutritional benefits. As they still contribute to energy and micronutrient intakes for young children.
Can my child have fibre?
The short answer is yes. There’s no need for babies or toddlers to completely avoid fibre. As mentioned above, fibre has many health benefits. Over the long-term, it may help to protect against certain health conditions. However, too much fibre isn’t advised for children under 2, simply because they can become full quite quickly from foods high in fibre, before they’ve had enough calories and other nutrients. Because of this, NHS advice for babies and children is the following:
“it’s not a good idea to only give wholegrain starchy foods to under-2s. After age 2, you can gradually introduce more wholegrain foods.”
This doesn’t mean that fibre-containing foods should be avoided necessarily. But offering a variety of foods including both white AND wholegrain carbohydrates is the best way to ensure your little ones are getting all the nutrients they need and not too much of others. Therefore you can offer some wholegrains and higher fibre foods during weaning, but it’s best to gradually build fibre into a child’s diet from weaning age. Rather than starting off with high intakes of lots of high fibre foods.
What is the recommended intake for fibre?
The table below shows the recommended daily fibre intakes for children aged between 2-16 years. There is no recommendation for children below the age of 2 but including a variety of fibre containing foods is still beneficial for this age group. As well as including plenty of foods high in protein and fats as well.
The infographic below gives some examples of daily meals that are high in fibre. The below examples meet the daily recommended intake for those aged between 2 and 5 years. For older children, these meals and snacks would still be suitable but the portion sizes would be adjusted to meet the higher amount recommended.
How can I increase my child’s fibre?
The foods that are highest in fibre are:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Wholegrains including brown bread, pasta and rice
- Pulses (beans, chickpeas and lentils)
For children over the age of 2, including a variety of these foods throughout the day will help to add fibre to each meal, as well as important micronutrients that these foods provide. Some tips on easy ways to include these in your child’s meal would be:
- Choose cereals such as Weetabix or porridge for breakfast
- Add fruits & ground nuts/seeds to breakfast cereals. Frozen berries and pre-ground packs of nuts/seeds are really helpful to have on hand
- Use wholegrain rice, pasta and bread where possible
- Keep frozen vegetables in stock to have a quick option to add to meals
- Leave the skin on vegetables – including potatoes
- Add beans or lentils to pasta sauces or chili
For children under the age of 2, the foods listed above are all great to include as part of a balanced diet, but it’s best to focus on variety from all food groups, rather than worry about meeting any fibre guidelines.
What about seeded bread & choking?
You can read my blog about bread here, which covers this in more detail. In short, it’s best not to offer bread with large seeds to babies, particularly when they are young and new to weaning. As they are introduced to more textures and become used to biting and chewing, offering some bread with small seeds shouldn’t be a problem.