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How to Improve a Child’s Microbiome with Plants

Let’s talk about a child’s gut microbiome. The gut “microbiome” includes all the bacteria and tiny organisms that live in a child’s gut. And, it influences overall health, not just a child’s gut health. A baby or child’s microbiome may impact brain development and their immune system. It also may also affect their risks for asthma, allergies, bowel disease, and obesity. This is a quickly developing field and there’s a lot of new research. Good news. There are things parents can do that may improve their child’s microbiome.

This post covers what we know about healthy gut microbiomes in kids and what parents can do improve them. At the end, I’ll share a week-long example of something that worked for my family (including my children).

So, how can we help kids have the healthiest gut bacteria possible?

Generally, more types of bacteria (bacteria diversity) correlate with improved health. So, we adults can try to help kids have many different types of these “good” bacteria. 

One way to do this? Plants. Lots of plants of different types. Different bacteria need different types of food. They don’t all eat the same things. So in order to “feed” all the different types of bacteria, we need to be choosing many different food sources.

Eating plants means more than just spinach and broccoli. In fact, the more variety of plants the better.  In other words, a plate filled with bites of several different fruits and vegetables is better for our kids’ microbiomes than the same plate full of only spinach.

For now, I’ll focus on eating plants. (This article covers the relationship between the microbiome and playing in plants).

How many types of plants should we strive for in order to improve our child’s microbiome?

The American Gut Project found that adults who ate 30 or more plants per week had more diverse microbiomes than those that ate fewer than 10 plants each week. (The American Gut Project is a project where citizens contributed their information and stool samples to scientists in order to create a huge database about all things microbiome and gut). 

Based on this research, we could also strive for including 30 or more plants in a child’s weekly diet. 

Let me be clear. There’s still a lot to learn about diet and the microbiome. So, when we talk about improving a child’s microbiome, we extrapolate some of that adult information.

I consider two things when applying adult data to kids’ health.

First, is there any chance of harm if we apply this information to kids in real life? And second, does the possible benefit make scientific sense (even if we’re still waiting for solid evidence that proves the benefit)?

To the first point, is there harm in striving for 30 plants a week in kids? We do know that variety in a child’s diet is important. So, encouraging more variety of plants specifically seems like a fine idea. Of course, we still need to make sure they’re getting enough of all nutrients. So, we wouldn’t choose plants at the expense of a child’s usual sources of iron or zinc, for example. (Iron and zinc are easily found in animal-based foods). 

Second, yes it makes sense that we can improve a kid’s microbiome by offering them a variety of foods as well. This paper showed that diet does affect the gut microbiome in children.

Striving for 30 plants per week is based on this small collection of adult data from the American Gut Project. Maybe it’s also a bit arbitrary when targeting a child’s gut health. I think parents can simply strive for adding more plants when possible to their child’s diet. They don’t necessarily need to keep track or tally marks. 

In an attempt to improve my children’s microbiomes with plants, I tried feeding my family more than 30 plants in a week.

Despite my belief that we don’t need to meticulously track plant intake, I did want to see how practical it is to feed kids 30 plants in a week. And yes, I was inspired by the data from the American Gut Project. So, see below for an experiment in my own home, with young kids who are adamantly not vegetable fanatics. 

Spoiler alert: I was able to feed each child 30 different plants in one week. No child ate a regular salad. (Not once, despite multiple offers). I share because I hope it’s helpful to other parents trying to improve their child’s microbiome. There are many ways to get those plants in kids’ bellies. 

Let’s break it down a bit before I list what we ate. 

What counts as a plant in the diet?

 Vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes, and whole grains all count as plants. (In my experiment, I also decided to include herbs and spices, if significant amounts were used throughout the week). 

For example, in the original literature, they make a point of saying that for a piece of multigrain bread, each grain counts as a plant. (So, trying to improve a child’s microbiome with plants can start with choosing a different bread).

As I tallied for my own family, I did not include highly processed plants with minimal nutritional value, like cane sugar or white flour. Some people actually try to avoid these foods when just thinking about a child’s gut health. (Wheat made its way onto the list early and often. So, additional flour wouldn’t add to any kind of plant diversity anyway). 

I did not count food that entered their mouths and then was spit out. I did count it if a single bite was taken, if it was actually swallowed. 

Here is our week’s worth of plant-containing meals and snacks.

In most cases, if we ate something more than once (often) I only list it the first time we ate it that week. The idea is 30 different plants per week, so the serving of applesauce on Monday counts as apples for the week. Even if we had applesauce a few other days and dried apples in a snack, it still counts as just one of the 30 plants for the week. So, I won’t list all the subsequent apple intake.

If it’s helpful, I’ll mention when we add a plant to subsequent meals just to offer some inspiration for anyone else striving for the same goal of 30 plants per week. 

And, the total number is a little over 30. Some of the foods were refused by one child or the other, but each achieved 30 plants individually. Also, I had entire dishes optimistically full of plants that each child refused completely. (I’m looking at you, eggplant parmesan, full of tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, onions, oregano, and basil. Alas, at least my own microbiome benefited). 

Monday

  • Toast with multigrain bread (included: wheat, flaxseed, oats, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, kaniwa seeds, brown rice, spelt flour, amaranth, barley, cornmeal, triticale, quinoa, and sorghum)
  • Everything Bagel Seasoning includes: onion, poppy seeds, garlic, and sesame seeds (added to several dishes throughout the week)
  • Applesauce
  • Packaged mango blueberry fruit bar
  • Chocolate Chip Granola (Made Good brand includes vegetable extracts: spinach, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, beets, shiitake mushrooms, in addition to grains found in today’s bread)
  • Peanut butter and cherry preserves (on a sandwich)
  • Almonds
  • Spinach (added to dishes throughout the week, not counted twice for Monday)
  • Monday total: 31. Not counting “vegetable extracts” : 25

Tuesday

  • Raisins
  • Pumpkin Pie Spice Seasoning: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger (added to several dishes throughout the week)
  • Blackberry/blueberry/strawberry  (blueberries not counted for today, as we had them already on Monday)
  • Turnip
  • Spaghetti Squash
  • Rutabaga
  • Tuesday’s total: 10

Wednesday

  • Soybean spaghetti (The tomato sauce with 6 plants was refused by kids!)
  • Wednesday total: 1

Thursday

  • Smoothie included: grapefruit, prune juice, pineapple, lettuce
  • (All other plants on Thursday were not new for the week).
  • Thursday total: 4

Friday

  • “Blueberry Almond Crunch” cereal included dates (all other ingredients found in foods eaten earlier in the week, like wheat, oats, blueberries, etc).
  • Almond milk (not counted, as we had plain almonds earlier)
  • Baby corn from Chinese takeout
  • Friday total: 2

Saturday

  • Pancakes included: dried apricots (along with other ingredients found in meals eaten earlier in the week, like shredded carrot, spinach, flaxseed, chia seed, raisins, etc)
  • Sweet potato
  • Saturday total: 2

Sunday

  • Banana
  • “NuttZo” nut and seed butter includes: cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, (along with other seeds and nuts we had earlier in the week)
  • “Protein Pizza Squares” (inspired by this recipe from The Scramble): includes chickpea flour, cauliflower, (And garlic, onion, both included in meals earlier in the week)
  • Sunday total: 6

Grand total of different plants eaten by kids for the week: 50

If I include the vegetable extracts found in Monday’s packaged granola snack, that takes us up to 55. (I don’t know how significant those extracts are, only that they did add measurable vitamins to the snack). If we take away some of the seasonings, like cinnamon, it takes us down a bit. However, the total is confidently over 30.

(If you’d like an easy way to log 30 plants, enter your email address here, and I’ll send a PDF to you).

How we were successful in each eating 30 different plants in one week.

First, I must confess that this took effort. I definitely sought out certain foods in order to achieve this goal. Going forward though, I do hope it becomes more second nature.

Frozen produce

Our freezer helped a lot. Many of these foods came from the freezer. The berries, spinach, spaghetti squash, and pineapple were all leftovers previously frozen. If I have a bag of baby carrots about to go bad, I’ll shred those and keep them in the freezer too. Then, they can be added to pancakes or smoothies in the future. 

Carefully chosen packaged food

Packaged snacks were really helpful. I bought these snacks before deciding to do this experiment, but my usual goal of finding packaged food with minimal added sugar paid off here. So, the cereal sweetened with dates, and the fruit bars made with only dried fruit added a few more plant servings. And, the granola with vegetable extracts was a surprise! Until I looked at the label for this post, I hadn’t realized that they were fortified with actual vegetables instead of a common vitamin additive. 

Of course, the multigrain bread was a huge slam dunk. So, if nothing else, families striving to improve their child’s microbiome with plants can replace white bread with a multigrain option. 

Finding plant replacements for other common foods gave us a couple of extra servings too. I’ll continue to consider soybean (or even kelp) noodles instead of standard pasta. And the chickpea flour for “pizza” was good enough.

Going forward, checking nutrition labels may be an easier way to add more plants. 

Meals that allow added plants without affecting flavor/texture too much

In case it’s not clear from the list, smoothies, oatmeal, and pancakes were perfect vehicles for adding a few vegetables and fruits.

Easy access to some produce in our backyard

Another thing that helped is something I didn’t even have in my life until this past year: a small backyard garden. It’s a 4 foot by 6 foot raised bed. It took effort and planning to start. However, we would not have had a rutabaga, lettuce, or turnip without our little garden. I understand this may be the least accessible tip I have, but it’s so valuable I have to mention it. 

Offering several options (& being okay with kids declining)

Lastly, there are many approaches to getting kids to eat plants. As I hinted, I offered them many more than they actually ate. (I honestly love most vegetables). So, I played the odds a little here. Had I only offered 30 over the course of a week, maybe they would have eaten 7. And, I’m hoping that the foods that they tried and spit out will one day be more appealing. There were many they just saw on my plate but were not interested in even tasting. So, I’m hoping that after seeing them many more times, they’ll consider trying them. (Some research shows that repeated exposure may help).

Summary: We can strive to offer 30 different plants per week in an effort to improve our children’s microbiomes.

Although research is still evolving, parents trying to improve their child’s microbiome could start by including more plants in their family’s diets. It’s important to discuss any drastic changes with a health care professional. And, any diet changes shouldn’t come at the expense of overall nutrition. Kids absolutely still need protein, iron, calcium, and zinc (among many other nutrients of course). All this nutrition comes from a balanced and varied diet.

I cannot emphasize enough how little definitive data we have on this topic in children. So, we all can wait and follow the research to learn if eating more plants truly and absolutely improves a child’s microbiome. In the meantime, we can rest knowing that eating a variety of foods overall (including plants) is good for a child’s health in general.

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

About the Author: Maya Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

image of fresh vegetables with overlaying text reading " the simplest way to improve your child's gut microbiome that you're probably almost doing already" www.mayapeds.com

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