29th May 2021 – Louise Mercieca – How Food Shapes Your Child
Louise is one of my fellow authors in the Sue Atkins Book Club and is a Nutritional Therapist (amongst other things – see below). I invited Louise to guest blog about her work, including her lovely book How Food Shapes Your Child and, I hope you’ll agree, what she has written below is fascinating!
If you have children who may be interested in our digestive system, or you just want a great way to explain it to them, this post does just that – perfectly.
World Digestive Health Day 2021
Did you realise that there is a day, and indeed an organisation, that celebrates world digestive health? Every 29th May, the World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO) celebrates World Digestive Health Day (WDHD) kicking off a yearlong, worldwide, public health campaign. Each year they have a theme and for 2021 they have partnered with the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders (IFSO), for the theme of; Obesity; An ongoing pandemic. More on that later.
Global Guardians of Digestive Health
The World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO) rather affectionately describe themselves as the Global Guardians of Digestive Health, I absolutely love this description and given the importance of digestive health issues and the impact they can have on society, I am glad we have a scientific community leading the way on this.
In my brain hearing ‘Guardians’ I immediately thought of my son and the Guardians of the Galaxy, but this got me thinking that it is never too early to start discussing the topic of digestive health with children.
As with many aspects of the human body the digestive system is a fascinating area, with many aspects that children find interesting and ‘amusing’ here are some fun facts about digestion to share with children:
Once you start eating, your food then begins a journey that can take as long as two days to complete! The process looks like this:
- Chewing starts the process, we produce saliva which breaks the food down and makes it mushy so it is able to be swallowed, your tongue helps by pushing tiny pieces of food or bolus towards the second stage of the digestive journey
- The Oesophagus – a special stretchy pipe that moves food from the back of your throat down into your stomach. Your very clever body is careful that food only goes into the oesophagus and not into your windpipe (which is at the back of your throat) as this would make you choke! To prevent that your windpipe has a special flap which prevents food from entering (the epiglottis). If we eat or drink too quickly and it ‘goes down the wrong way’ this is when the epiglottis doesn’t have enough time to ‘close the flap’ Your clever body will just make you cough straight away to get rid of the unwanted food or drink. The food in the oesophagus is squeezed down in a wave like motion, massaging the food down to your stomach – this part of the journey takes about three seconds
- The Stomach – your stomach is amazing! it is flat when empty but can really, really expand! The stomach has three main jobs:
- to store eaten food
- to break down the food into a runny mixture
- to then slowly empty the runny mixture into the next stage of the digestive journey
- Your stomach is a bit like a cement mixer inside your body – it churns, mixes and mashes up the food you have eaten. Your stomach is lined with strong muscles in the stomach wall, the stomach wall also produces gastric juices which help to kill bacteria (the ones we don’t want to keep!). Inside your stomach you have Hydrochloric Acid (stomach acid). This acid is almost as strong as battery acid and could clean the rust of steel! So how come it doesn’t harm us? Special cells called epithelial protect us by coating the insides of our stomach
- The small intestine – small by name but not small at all! The small intestine is around 22ft long! If you stretched out your intestines (not that you ever should) they would almost cover the surface of a badminton court! It’s here that a lot of the important work really happens! Your small intestine breaks down and begins to absorb the nutrients from the foods you have eaten, with some help from your pancreas, gallbladder and liver. Your food can spend up to five hours in this stage of the journey, a bit like a digestive traffic jam!
- The Large Intestine – we are nearly at the end of the digestive journey here, the large intestine is indeed, large! Measuring up to 2m long and around 7cm wide! At this stage bacteria extract more goodness from your food and absorb the water before moving on to the final part of the journey
- The Rectum – The last chance for any remaining nutrients to be absorbed before all that’s left is the waste products which then take the form of, yes you guessed it your poo!
Children will often enjoy the last stage of the digestive journey the most so here’s some additional facts:
- Poo is brown because they collect the red pigment (bilirubin) left by red blood cells when they die
- If you eat a lot of Beetroot, you will get purple poo!
- A poo is made of mainly water with some fibre, dead and living bacteria
- There was approx. 43kg of human poo left on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission
I hope you agree the human digestion journey is fascinating! But how can we support children with strong digestive health:
- Foods to support the gut microbiome – eating pre and probiotic cultures will support the diversity of your gut. Probiotics include live yogurts and prebiotics include bananas, garlic, asparagus oats, chicory
- Fibre rich foods – as outlined above fibre is essential for a healthy digestion. It also helps you to feel full and supports both blood sugar regulation and cardiovascular health.
- Colourful foods – eating a rainbow every day is good for many reasons! Each naturally occurring colour group does something different to support your health, but getting a good cross section of them all promoted the ‘good bacteria’ in your gut and provides you with lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants along with a good dose of fibre
- Keeping hydrated, children can often forget to drink, so ensuring that drinks are readily available and preferably water
- Eating real food – anything that resembles its’ original food format is best! An apple rather than an apple flavoured product for example. Real foods provide us with quality protein, essential fats and vitamins and minerals.
- Eat mindfully – remember the digestion journey, when we ate too quickly the food ‘went the wrong way’? When we eat too quickly, we increase the changes of digestive discomfort and over eating, as we eat so quickly, we haven’t realised how full we were!
- Exercise (not whilst eating!) – moving helps to increase the blood flow to our digestive tract helping the process to work quickly and effectively and potentially exercising can increase our ‘good bacteria’ in our gut.
Just like grown-ups if children are worried about something it could trigger digestive issues. There is a strong link between stress and our gut. In some people this may delay the digestion journey, causing constipation, bloating, general uncomfortable feelings, in others it may expediate the digestion journey causing diarrhoea. When we are under stress, we produce the stress hormone Cortisol this is meant to enable us to move into ‘fight or flight’ but the type of stress we are enduring is normally not one that we can run away from, having elevated levels of the hormone in our blood can lead to digestive discomfort.
There are many resources out there now to support children in recognising worries, encouraging children to talk about worries, not bottling them up (which can then create health concerns such as IBS). Children can learn about butterflies in our tummies and how to react to them. Being able to discuss concerns and emotions in childhood is really important in laying down the foundations for adult mental health, if it becomes habitual in childhood to be open with ourselves and others about our emotions it will hopefully remain habitual as we go into adulthood.
Our digestive system may, biologically be fascinating and in some ways amusing (who doesn’t smirk at a little bit of toilet talk?!) but it is also incredibly influential in our overall physical and mental health. Ensuring that we have a healthy, balanced diet is crucial but so is managing our ability to relax, discuss feelings, share concerns as when we bottle up all of our worries and internalise our stresses, we can make ourselves poorly.
For more information on the work that is taking place for World Digestive Health Day (WDHD) 2021 take a look here:
#WDHD2021 #obesityawareness #Obesityanongoingpandemic
More about Louise
Louise Mercieca is a Nutritional Therapist, Author, Presenter on Early Years TV Food, and Founder of The Health Kick, a business driven by the mission of providing understandable, practical nutritional advice, in a world driven by diet culture and convenience eating.
Louise is influential in early-years health, making an impact that can influence the next generation’s eating habits. She is the author of ‘How Food Shapes Your Child’ and is hugely passionate about spreading the message that kids can make healthy food choices.