The biggest shortfall in most Americans’ diets isn’t vitamins or minerals. It’s fiber. Experts say adult women should get 25 grams a day while men should get 38 grams. Yet we average a paltry 15 grams.
Our kids aren’t doing any better. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that children ages 1 to 3 get at least 19 grams of fiber a day, and children ages 4 to 8 get 25 grams. The AHA says girls ages 9 to 18 require a minimum of 26 grams, and boys in the same age group should get 31 to 38 grams. Most children’s diets don’t provide nearly what they need.
Why worry? Because fiber has so many health benefits. High-fiber foods fill tummies up on fewer calories, so eating plenty of them is a key to maintaining a healthy weight. Fiber has been shown to lower bloodstream cholesterol levels and reduce heart attack danger. (These aren’t big threats to a 6-year-old, sure, but excellent eating habits now can set your child up for a lifetime of good health.) It also appears to protect against type 2 diabetes, which is a growing problem among American children, as well as certain cancers. And in the category of less scary but quite uncomfortable conditions, fiber relieves constipation.
The bottom line: One of the best things you can do to help your child thrive is to increase the amount of fiber he or she consumes. (There’s even a bonus: His or her health will benefit from the many other important nutrients that most fiber-rich foods have.) Begin slowly, nutritionists say, since it takes time for the digestive system to adapt to extra roughage. Too much too quickly can cause gas and bloating. Also encourage your child to drink more fluids, especially water.
Here’s how the experts suggest increasing the amount of fiber in your child’s diet:
Serve more fruits and vegetables.
Foods that come from plants, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, are the only sources of dietary fiber. Experts recommend aiming for at least 2 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day. All produce isn’t equally rich in fiber, though. Some of the standouts are artichokes, avocados, dried fruits, okra (not exactly a favorite of most kids), baked potatoes with the skin, pears, and carrots. Concentrate on the ones your child likes.
Avoid peeling produce.
The skin and membranes of apples, pears, potatoes, and many other fruits and veggies are where most of the fiber is, so resist your child’s entreaties to peel things — unless he or she really won’t eat them otherwise. Just be sure to rinse produce thoroughly before serving. If you’re concerned about pesticide residue and can afford organic produce, that’s a fine option (but you should still rinse it well, as many people may have touched it since it left the tree or bush, and it may not be totally pesticide-free).
Serve vegetables raw or lightly cooked.
Many kids prefer veggies when they’re crunchy. Serve your child’s favorites — carrots, celery, cauliflower, broccoli — alongside salsa or low-fat salad dressing for dipping. When cooking veggies, it’s best to microwave them in a small amount of water or