Preschoolers & Fiber Intake
American preschool-age children do not get enough fiber from their diets, reports the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (2005;105:221–5). Inadequate fiber intake may increase these children’s risk of developing heart disease and other chronic illnesses. As dietary habits formed before age two tend to carry into adulthood, it is critical to introduce and emphasize nutritious foods to children as their tastes develop.
Fiber, the indigestible carbohydrate and woody portion of plants, comes from foods such as whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat), legumes (peas, beans, lentils), fruits, and vegetables. Eating high-fiber foods can decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer. Adequate fiber intake is also necessary to ensure regular bowel movements, guarding against constipation and the development of diverticular disease (a disorder of the colon).
The National Academy of Sciences recommends a daily fiber intake of 14 grams per 1,000 calories for adults and children. This Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is higher than the amount previously recommended by the American Health Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The new study assessed the average daily intake of fiber by two- to five-year-old children. Foods eaten by over 5,000 children were tracked for two days as part of the Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals. On the first day, dietary information was collected during an in-home interview. The second interview took place by telephone three to ten days later. Average daily fiber and nutrient intake were then calculated. Dietary intake data of two- to three-year-olds was compared with that of four- to five-year-olds.
Children who ate the most fruits, vegetables, and grains consumed more fiber than children who ate less of these foods. Two- and three-year-olds consumed less dietary fiber on average than four- and five-year-olds. Foods like applesauce and fruit cocktail contributed the most fiber to the children’s diets. Lesser amounts were obtained from soy and other legumes, high-fiber cereals, grain-based fatty foods such as pizza, and high-fat salty snacks. Of note, the consumption of high-fiber fruits and vegetables (such as blueberries, raisins, squash, and broccoli) was too low to contribute to total fiber estimates. Fiber intake was far below the DRI in all of the children, even those who ate the most fiber. In fact, fiber intake did not meet previous lower recommendations.
The high-fiber diets eaten by the children were also rich in other nutrients including iron, folic acid, and vitamins A and C. However, calcium and vitamin B12 intakes were lower among those children with the highest intake of fiber. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as dairy products, chicken, and red meat. The decrease in this nutrient in the more fiber-rich diets may reflect lower consumption of these foods. High-fiber foods may also have replaced some calcium-rich dairy products, leading to a lower intake of this important nutrient in children with high-fiber diets. In addition, fiber itself may interfere with calcium absorption. The overall benefits of a high-fiber diet, however, far outweigh any potential deficiencies. Eating a whole-foods diet that includes calcium-rich vegetables and some dairy products should ensure adequate intake of calcium and vitamin B12.
It appears that fiber intake by preschoolers is much lower than it should be. Public health programs and pediatricians should emphasize the importance of eating fiber-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, to young children and their parents.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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