One of the most stressful aspects of parenting has to be one of the most natural: how to feed your child. From the early days of breastfeeding (or bottlefeeding) to the years of dealing with a picky, semi-independent teenage eater, parents fret about whether they are feeding their kids the right foods in the right amounts and in the right way.

It’s tempting to jump on the latest nutritional bandwagon, but we’ve been burned before. Ask any parent who has raised children through the ever-changing scientific debate on the best time to introduce highly allergenic foods.

Parents are also skeptical because they read the latest research results that seem to contradict everything they've observed as parents. For instance, studies show that chocolate and sugar can’t make a child act crazy, but those researchers never saw our preschoolers after a couple of chocolate chip cookies, am I right?

So it’s with a jaded eye that I’ve approached the hot topic of gut bacteria, but I have to say that I’m a believer. Our personal microbiomes—the thousands of bacteria that live in our digestive systems—can have a dramatic impact on our physical and mental health.

Our digestive systems have trillions of bacteria, representing as many as a thousand different species. This variety of gut bacteria helps us digest food, absorb nutrients and regulate our immune system. It can be knocked out of balance by a variety of things, but especially the medications we take, from antibiotics to reflux remedies, and the foods we do and don’t eat.

Any Google search will reveal thousands of articles on the importance of microbiome health. Ignoring the ones that are trying to sell you supplements, there are a lot of respected sources studying intestinal flora. For instance, physician researchers at the Mayo Clinic are studying the impact of the intestinal microbiome on rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. Others are trying to prove a link to Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and colon cancer.

How to nurture your tween’s or teen’s gut bacteria

Research about what you can do to improve your microbiome (and your tween or teen’s) is just beginning, but there does seem to be a link to certain types of food. Researcher and author Jeff Leach of the Human Food Project told NPR’s Maanvi Singh that fiber serves as food for the good bacteria we want in our gut. “When we starve our bacteria (of fiber), they eat us,” specifically the mucous lining in our intestines, he said.

The best source of extra fiber in your diet is vegetables. In fact, in a response to his blog post “An eater’s guide to a healthy microbiome,” Leach suggested that “the single best thing one can do is eat as many species of plants as you can in a week” and “stop worrying about fat and protein coming from animals (it’s OK).”

Other good foods to eat are garlic, which can kill off bad bacteria in your gut, and fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt. Occasional use of these healthy foods doesn’t seem to make much difference, but an all-out commitment to eating fermented foods and upping dietary fiber can make a difference.

Finally, Leach recommended people to “think twice about taking an antibiotic you might not need, get your hands and feet dirty from time to time, eat more dirt, open some windows and improve your home microbiome, get a dog and kiss them and their microbiome a little more often (the mouth end, that is), and stop hyper-cooking food—let your stomach do a little of the work.”

Sounds like a good excuse to grab some celery and kiss my dog!

Top 5 tips to build your kid’s healthy digestive system:

1. Encourage a wide variety of vegetables and fruit—the closer to raw, the better.

2. Feed the kids yogurt with live cultures every day. (Consider substituting sweetened yogurt with unsweetened + honey, gradually reducing the amount of honey.)

3. Limit sugar and processed foods. (Bad bacteria and yeast love sugar.)

4. Don’t go crazy with antiseptic cleansers and hand gel. (A little dirt can stimulate your immune system.)

5. Don't ask the pediatrician for antibiotics to fight viruses. They're only effective against bacteria.

Maureen Connors Badding is a Wauwatosa freelance writer, mom and habitual volunteer.

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