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Doc Talk: Low-nutrient diets contribute to rise in constipation

  • Published Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, at 9:28 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at 5:57 a.m.

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The frequency at which children are admitted to the hospital with constipation is a growing concern. Certainly, constipation can occur as a result of illnesses, physical disabilities, and from chronic medications, all of which should be addressed and managed with a doctor’s supervision. But often constipation is due to lack of fiber in the diet such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables – which can be avoided by improving eating habits.

Working with children in the hospital setting for three decades, I’ve seen a variety of food fads come and go. Eating habits in the family unit may be contributing to poor digestion and elimination or, as our children refer to it, poop. Our lives are increasingly busy. Often we are away from home where fast foods and convenient meals are an easy solution. These quick meals typically contribute very little whole grain, fruits and vegetables. Parents who frequently eat on the run or feed their family with fast food options should ask themselves, “Am I setting a good example by what I eat?”

I often hear parents say of their child, “He just won’t eat if it’s not what he likes.” Again parents should ask themselves, “Who is in control here?” Children will prefer low-nutrient food if the parent gives in to their demands. Eating these foods on an occasional basis isn’t bad, but if the quick meals routinely replace healthy alternatives, the body will suffer.

Where to begin

Parents may wonder where to begin. Well, deciding to act is a great start. You don’t have to be perfect, just make small changes. Here are some ideas to get you started:

• Gradually increase fiber (vegetables, fruits and whole grains) and fluid to avoid constipation and improve nutrition. Be sure to have your child drink plenty of fluids as increasing fiber without water can lead to more constipation, bloating and gas. Some hard to chew foods, like raw fruit and vegetables or nuts and seeds, may need to be avoided if their age (toddlers and preschoolers) or medical condition presents a choking risk.

• Drink water or milk as a routine beverage, not fruit juices, pop, sport drinks, or energy drinks (which are low in fiber). Instead, replace the sugary beverages with fruits for a sweet, fibrous treat.

• Increase the fiber content in the cereal and bread you buy. Check the package label.

• Offer fruits, vegetables or whole grains at most meals. If the child refuses these foods, do not react negatively and force them to eat them. Continue to offer these foods to expose your child to them and be a good example.

• If you do have to grab fast food occasionally, try to have fruit for a snack that day.

• A guideline of fiber intake is: 25 to 35 grams daily for adults and, for children, the child’s age in years plus 5 (15 grams fiber for a 10 year old).

Foods that contain high fiber content (list is not limited to these foods only):

Fruit: Dried fruit (apples, raisins, dates), apples or applesauce, peaches, pears, kiwi, oranges, berries, grapes and melon.

Vegetables: Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, dried beans (pinto beans and lentils), corn, squash, greens (lettuce, spinach), tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

Grains, nuts and seeds: Whole-grain breads, cereal, whole-grain pastas, graham crackers, whole-grain waffles, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, all nuts, popcorn.

Adding fiber to the diet, even in small amounts, can decrease the frequency of constipation and encourage your child to implement healthy eating habits that will benefit them throughout their life.

Additional long-term benefits of fiber

• May decrease risk of developing diseases related to the heart, diabetes and some cancers

• Assists with maintaining a healthy weight

Donna Swearengin is a clinical dietitian at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis.

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