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New Year's nutrition: fibre for children

The Christmas holiday period is typically a time when everyone overindulges with party food and treats. In the new year that follows parents/carers may well consider getting into a healthy routine for their families, so this is an ideal time to think about the nutrition advice we offer.

We are probably aware that as a nation we should have less free sugars in the foods and drinks we consume but a really important message that often gets overlooked is that we also need to increase our fibre intakes.

In an era of ‘don’ts’, this is a great positive message – it’s something we can advise people to eat more of rather than cut back on.

Why is fibre important?

A diet rich in fibre can help digestion and prevent constipation. Constipation is common in young children especially during potty training, and a lack of eating high-fibre foods like fruit and vegetables can be contributory, as can not drinking enough fluid.

Eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer in adulthood. This may seem irrelevant to children but it isn’t! We know that food preferences can be shaped from a young age so providing a healthy, varied diet including fibre-rich foods may help children make healthier food choices throughout their life, effectively helping to reduce their risk of certain diet-related diseases in adulthood.

How much fibre can little tummies have?

In the past, it was advised that high-fibre intakes in young children would result in their small tummies getting full too quickly, potentially leading to poor growth and inadequate intakes of some essential nutrients. This concern has however not been well supported by research and with the high rate of childhood obesity, increasing dietary fibre may actually help in the battle against weight gain.

After an in-depth review of the evidence on fibre and health, new government guidelines were published in 20151 and for the first time in the UK recommended fibre intakes were set for children from two years:

  • 15g/day (2 to 5-year-olds)
  • 20g/day (5 to 11-year-olds)

These are far from being met and, on average, children could do with upping intakes by around 50%.

There are no set recommendations for the under twos. The advice would be not to give them exclusively wholegrain/high-fibre starchy foods, but to gradually increase the amounts in their diet so that they can meet their fibre target at the age of 2 years.

How to increase fibre intakes in young children

It’s not only important to get enough fibre, but we should also encourage fibre from a variety of sources, so parents/carers can:

  • Offer wholegrain foods at some meal times and snacks (e.g. wholegrain breakfast cereals and oats [make sure these are not high in sugars], wholemeal bread/pasta, brown rice, rye crackers, plain rice/oatcakes).
  • Add beans and pulses to stews, curries and pasta sauces. Don’t forget that baked beans [ones with lower salt and sugar if possible] are cheap and a good fibre provider.
  • Provide at least one portion of fruit and/or vegetables with each meal and as snacks. [Note that dried fruit like raisins are best eaten at mealtimes, not as a snack, to reduce the risk of tooth decay].
  • Keep skins on potatoes, where possible.
  • Use nut butters [not whole nuts for little ones as they are a choking risk] and seeds with snacks.
HOW CAN THE DAILY FIBRE TARGET BE ACHIEVED FOR A 3-YEAR-OLD?
Meals and snacks Sources of fibre Fibre amount (g)

Breakfast

Wheat biscuit with milk and fruit

1 small banana (80g)

1 wheat biscuit (20g)

1.1

1.9

Mid-morning snack

Toast with peanut butter and fruit

½ slice of white bread with ‘added fibre’ (18g)

Peanut butter (10g)

1/4 pear (38g)

0.9

 

0.7

1.0

Lunch

Baked potato with beans and cucumber and tomato salad

½ medium potato with skin (90g)

Baked beans (50g)

3 slices of cucumber (18g)

3 cherry tomatoes (45g)

2.3

2.5

0.1

0.6

Mid afternoon snack

2 oatcakes with cream cheese and fruit

Oatcakes (24g)

Grapes (40g)

2.2

0.6

Tea/dinner

Chicken and vegetable curry with brown rice

Cauliflower (20g)

Peas (20g)

Brown rice (80g)

0.4

1.1

1.2

Total - 16.6

As you can see the fibre recommendations can be met if fruit and vegetables are included in meals and snacks, as well as some pulses and wholegrain versions of starchy foods. So remember to kick start families' new years with fibre!

References

  1. Public Health England. SACN Carbohydrates and Health Report 2015 gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-carbohydrates-and-health-report