The benefits of dietary fiber in mitigating the risk of chronic diseases in adults are well documented. In children, studies are exploring the potential benefits of dietary fiber to help with occasional constipation, healthy body weight, and blood sugar regulation, and to help boost essential nutrient intake.
Current studies suggest that all efforts should be made to increase children’s dietary fiber consumption. According to U.S. national data, most children have inadequate dietary fiber intake. In fact, 9 of 10 children fail to meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommended fiber intake.
A large benefit of high fiber intake in children is boosting overall dietary essential nutrients. A 2016 cross-sectional survey (n = 1,733) examining infants and toddlers observed that children with fiber intake in the highest quartile had significantly higher levels of vitamin B6, magnesium, iron, and potassium compared to children in the lowest quartile in all age groups.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement advocating key nutrients for brain development. This cross-sectional survey observed that a high-fiber diet boosted the intake of key cognitive-supporting nutrients, including folate, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin B6.
In the U.S., constipation is reported to occur in almost 5% of all pediatric outpatient visits and >25% of referrals are for gastroenterology specialists. Studies indicate that children with high fiber consumption from food and supplements show fewer signs of occasional constipation and improved overall gastrointestinal health.
In a clinical study (n = 20), the administration of 100 mg/kg of glucomannan (a type of fiber) taken twice daily reduced the need for laxative use and decreased the number of painful defecation episodes per week in neurologically impaired children with chronic constipation compared to a placebo. In another study (n = 61), children aged 4 to 16 years old were observed after being given partially hydrolyzed guar gum with fruit juice (with serving sizes based on age), which effectively increased their number of bowel movements per week and resulted in improved stool consistency.
A randomized controlled trial (n = 56) investigated the effectiveness of cocoa husk supplements (4 g of cocoa husk and 1 g of betafructosans dissolved in 200 mL of whole milk) or a placebo in children aged 3 to 10 years with occasional constipation. The children receiving the cocoa husk supplement displayed faster transit time, an increased number of bowel movements, and a reported decrease in hard stools compared to the placebo.
Dietary fiber may support healthy body weight in children, but more research is needed. A 2-year follow-up study (n = 85) investigating overweight children aged 11 to 17 years living in the U.S. showed that decreased fiber intake was associated with a 10% increase in visceral body fat.
A balanced diet for children includes healthy fiber intake. Due to the potential aversions of high-fiber foods in children, supplements may be warranted to promote healthy fiber intake and the potential associated clinical benefits.
By Danielle Moyer, MS, CNS, LDN