Ways To Improve Your Child's Digestive Health

In a world full of ‘food options’, are you doing enough to take good care of your child’s digestive health? Find out from one of India’s best digestive health experts, Dr Muffazal Lakdawala.

By Deepthi Balasunder

Ways To Improve Your Child's Digestive Health

We live in a world where fast food has just gotten faster. Children are spoilt for choices, which is why the junk food proportion in a child’s diet is hitting alarming levels. Given this backdrop, how challenging is it for parents to take good care of their child’s digestive health? We talk to renowned digestive health expert, Dr Muffazal Lakdawala to understand this and more. During the course of the conversation, Dr Lakdawala stresses on the changing food patterns in India and why they are likely to cause serious obesity problems in the next generation, if parents do not act, and act fast. He also shares very interesting nutrition tips. Here are excerpts from our exclusive conversation:

To begin with, what are some of the common digestive health issues in children that you come across?

For children who are three years of age and above, it would invariably be gastrointestinal (GI) issues such as diarrhoea, constipation, blood in stool and abdominal pain that could be attributed to different diseases.

Some of these diseases and common medical emergencies are appendicitis, intestinal worms and food poisoning. And if you have pets like dogs or cats at home, the chances of your child contracting an infection is higher. This invariably leads to abdominal-related problems.

Another common digestive problem in children is constipation. However, if your child is normally constipated from babyhood, and normally does not pass stools for two days, there is nothing to be stressed about. But if she was passing stools twice a day, and suddenly begins to pass stools only once in two days, then it becomes a cause for concern.

You can address this issue by giving your child a bowl of salad every day. Serve a good portion of uncooked fruits or vegetables that are rich in fibre, as they help in easing the bowel movement. Also, one of the most common causes of constipation is lack of water. So, ensure that your child drinks at least two litres of water every day since little kids tend to dehydrate faster. Water intake is crucial for overall well-being as well.

You talked about key issues like dehydration, constipation and diarrhoea. When should a parent start worrying in conditions like these?

If you observe the severity of symptoms in your child — extreme abdominal pain, frequent episodes of diarrhoea or vomiting, vomiting blood or passing blood in his stools — these dismaying signs necessitate an immediate medical intervention. Also, it should be noted that uncontrolled diarrhoea and vomiting may also lead to electrolyte imbalance due to which your child may become dehydrated. This should be addressed immediately before it leads to further complications. 

A study in 2016 showed alarming obesity trends in India. Does that put added pressure on young parents?

If your child is growing right according to her age and developing normally as per the age-height-weight chart and doctor’s feedback, you need not worry. However, in today’s scenario, more and more children are becoming overweight and obese. I’d blame lack of physical activities, staying glued to screens, and poor choice of food — all things junk and sugar-laden, for that.

It is during the age span of 9 to13 years when boys and girls reach puberty, that the signs such as putting on weight and black marks around the neck show up. When you notice this, you should be careful and take immediate action by seeking medical advice.

In your profession, do you come across preteens and teens who literally ‘starve’ themselves to lose weight?

Yes, a lot of that happens. Teens follow various diets like the infamous ‘Keto diet’ without doing much research. If it had worked on others, they assume it will work on them too. But, it doesn’t.

For instance, some kids may need more carbohydrates because they have an active lifestyle and do a lot of physical activities, such as playing sports or jogging. Their bodies need a certain amount of combustible calories, which can only come from eating digestive carbohydrates. But, by following some low-carb diet plan to lose weight, they may end up completely cutting down on foods rich in carbohydrates, without even understanding the serious consequences it can have on them.

Few others may avoid fatty foods completely, but what replaces fat? It is sugar, and no one tells them that. So, your child eats a fat-free yoghurt thinking it’s healthy, but it also contains a high amount of sugar.

So, what is an ideal diet plan that a child should follow?

An ideal diet plan should contain food from all food groups — proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals. All kinds of food must be included in the diet and in moderation. In any case of dieting, don’t make the mistake of completely removing food groups such as carbs or fats, as fats are essential for the absorption of Vitamin A, D, K and E that are necessary for the growth of healthy hair and skin.

Further, ensure kids’ mealtimes are fixed. Dinner should be had at least two hours before sleep. The night meal must be the least-carbohydrate or least-high calorie meal. If your child feels hungry, give him a fruit or a handful of nuts, rather than giving a sandwich. Proteins are good tummy fillers when compared to carbohydrates and other calorie-laden food.

Another important thing to remember is not to allow kids to eat anything on the bed. Beds are only meant for sleeping. Also, it is better that they do not watch TV or smartphones while eating their meals. These are habits to inculcate in your child at an early age.

Can you share some nutritional tips?

We need a well-informed parenting society when it comes to the nutrition of children. For instance, know that even fresh fruit juices are unhealthy because you are removing all fibre and antioxidants and giving only what remains to your kids to gulp down with scoops of added sugar. Give the fruit itself, or a healthy alternative such as whole milk.

Pasta, pizzas, fruit juices, burgers, carbonated beverages and energy drinks are all extremely unhealthy. Whole wheat pasta and multi-grain bread are better. Also, it is becoming a fashion of sorts to take soya milk and almond milk, instead of cow’s milk. We should not avoid traditional foods such as cow’s milk, which we have been consuming for generations. 

Try traditional cereals, such as bajra and ragi once in a while. Exotic fruits are not healthier than our local and seasonal ones, which are your best bet. Sugar is an acquired taste. Cut down on the use of sugar, especially the refined white sugar. Preferably use natural forms of sugar like jaggery or fruits. Don’t start your child’s first meal of the day with sugar-loaded cereals. A sweet treat such as a bar of chocolate or ice cream can be had just once a week. Chips are a strict ‘no-no’.

More importantly, ensure that your child sleeps well and long, as her body needs rest. Lack of sleep is a major cause of weight gain in children.

You are a parent too. So what is your personal mantra in maintaining the health of your child?

I have a five-year-old son. I ensure he follows a good diet from the start. I believe children imitate their parents. So, we should make sure we follow a healthy lifestyle. I’m strictly against sugar. When my son was a toddler, we used to extract the pulp from different fruits and make it into yummy ice lollies, which he would delightfully feast on. So, I believe that if you start early, train your kids right, and expose them to natural food from across the various food groups, you set them on a path of wellness.

During your paediatric visits, ensure you bring up the matter of digestive health. Check if your child is in the healthy weight category or if he has any other trouble. Reach out to your doctor and seek her advice. The earlier you start, the better for your child.

Hall of fame:

  • Dr Muffazal Lakdawala is the Chairman of Institute of Minimal Invasive Surgical Sciences and Research Centre, Saifee Hospital, Mumbai.
  • He is also the founder of Centre for obesity and Digestive Surgery, Mumbai, which is the first Indian Centre for Excellence in Bariatric Surgery.
  • He has authored the book ‘The Eat-Right Prescription.’

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