Choosing high-fiber foods for kids

Eating Well

November 14, 1995|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Are your kids eating enough fiber? Probably not.

Food consumption surveys done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that American kids, like American adults, eat only half the fiber they need for good health.

For children, dietary fiber is especially important to prevent constipation and reduce the risk of obesity, according to physician Christine L. Williams, in research published recently in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association to launch its multi-year Child Nutrition and Health Campaign.

Dr. Williams points out that constipation is a common childhood problem whose therapeutic plan often includes increasing fluids and dietary fiber from fruits, vegetables and grain products.

Although constipation may not seem like an earth-shattering problem, it does make kids (and adults) headachy, irritable and lethargic, robbing them of the energy for play and the concentration for study. It makes them uncooperative, too.

Fiber fights obesity because high-fiber diets tend to be lower in fat and total calories. High-fiber foods are bulkier, so kids get full faster on fewer calories. Although the calorie and fat difference may not be large on any given day, over time the difference could be substantial.

Another long-term effect, of course, is that high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables and grains provide a wide range of antioxidant vitamins and minerals, along with hundreds of phytochemicals, all believed to be cancer-preventers. So gradually increasing your child's high-fiber foods could start some lifetime habits with long-term payoffs.

And "gradually" is the key here. Kids' systems, just like their parents', need to adjust to changes over time.

Also, it's important not to overdo it. Diets too high in fiber could end up providing too few calories for kids to grow on, as well as preventing absorption of important vitamins and minerals.

Here are some easy rules of thumb for improving your child's fiber intake.

* Age plus five is about right. After your child is 2 years old, just add five to his age to estimate the number of grams of fiber needed daily. So if your child is 5, add five, and target 10 grams of fiber per day. By the time your child is 20, he'll be getting 25 grams of fiber each day, the current adult recommendation.

* Offer, don't push. The recommendation is designed to be a guideline for food intake over time, not an iron-clad rule to make your child's life, and yours, miserable. Find high-fiber foods your child will like, and make them available for his enjoyment. Check out cereals, fig bars, bran muffins, corn tortillas, granola bars, whole grain crackers, popcorn, nuts, sunflower seeds, baked beans, corn, peas, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

* Set a good example. Kids learn by observing what parents do, and most American adults fall short in the fiber department. So tune up your own eating habits along the way. Sit on the porch and share a pear. Get together in the kitchen to build a salad. Snack on low-fat tortilla chips and bean dip. Try a label-reading treasure hunt to find a high-fiber bread you both like.

Fiber information is listed in the Nutrition Facts on all food labels. For fresh fruits and vegetables, look for the nutrition posters in the produce department of your grocery store.

You and your child could both learn a lot.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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