A healthy digestive system is fundamental for our optimal health. Helping children to understand this and talk about this process is invaluable and establishes an early understanding about the importance of the food and drink we eat.
Our digestive system can be compared to a river that runs through us, which we feed each day with food and drink. In an ideal environment and when we make healthy choices, nutrients are broken down and the digestive system works effectively to get fuel to every cell of the body. This process supports our immune system, runs our metabolism and ensures effective communication between every other cell of our bodies. Talking through the digestive system in child’s speak can be an ideal starting point in early years settings. Use these simple facts and tasks as a starting point.
Digestion starts when the body starts to prepare for food. Triggers include the sight, smell, sound and textures that are associated with food. This anticipation initiates the digestive system to send signals and produce digestive juices.
Task: Ask children to consider how they feel when they can smell their meal cooking.
Chewing food well is important for the later stages of digestion. It serves to break food down into small pieces and also stimulates saliva, which primarily starts to digest carbohydrates.
Task: Give children a savoury cracker and ask them to chew it but keep it in their mouth. The amylase in their saliva will start to break it down and eventually it will taste sweet.
Here food mixes with the stomach acid to continue the digestion process and also destroy bacteria. It’s important for children to understand that the stomach mustn’t become overloaded and can only hold the amount of their 2 cupped hands.
Task: Use a food processor to demonstrate the kneading and churning that occurs in the stomach. Show how a cake mix can become ruined if large chunks (unchewed food) goes into the mix and also if too much water is added (dilutes stomach acid). Help children to understand the stomach mustn’t be overloaded, food needs to be chewed to help the stomach acid work effectively and you shouldn’t drink too much water/liquid with meals as this dilutes stomach acid.
The Small and Large Intestines
The small intestines is where digestive enzymes are released which carry on the digestive process. Here the importance of good digestive bacteria is vital for the absorption of nutrients. In the large intestines, the body reabsorbs water and vitamins made by our beneficial bacteria such as vitamin K and B vitamins. Here waste is also compacted and stored (as faeces) before it is passed from the body.
Task: Talk to children about how to keep a football pitch healthy and green. Compare this to their bodies. If the soil and bacteria are well balanced then the grass with be healthy but if the nutrients that you feed the grass are full of junk and sugar the grass will not grow well and will eventually turn brown and die. Discuss foods that can help to keep our bodies healthy such as vegetables, fruit, fish, yoghurt.
These are made up of fibre, water, dead cells and bacteria and they can tell a lot about your overall health and how your digestive system is functioning. For example, if a child has small hard stools, they need to increase fibre in their diet and water consumption. Undigested food in stools could suggest the individual may not be chewing properly or needs some stomach acid/digestive enzyme support.
Task: Children love talking about ‘poo’. Read The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch. Talk about the importance of going to the toilet daily.
What to eat?
Foods that support digestive health include soluble fibre (oats, brown rice, pulses, vegetables and fruit), insoluble fibre (nuts, flaxseed, vegetables), vitamin C rich foods (peppers, dark green leafy vegetables, kiwi, broccoli), magnesium rich foods (leafy vegetables, nuts, seafood, sea vegetables, legumes), probiotic rich foods (cottage cheese, kefir, olives, yoghurt) and prebiotic rich foods (asparagus, banana, garlic, honey, leeks, legumes, onions, peas and yoghurt).
Consuming plenty of water daily supports the absorption of nutrients, flushes waste and toxins from the body and can help to prevent constipation.
Avoid processed grains (white bread, pasta, cereal), junk food and sugary foods which can impact throughout the digestive system and compromise our absorption alongside our immunity and metabolism.
Use these tips as a starting point in early years to explain what happens throughout our digestive system and the importance of keeping it healthy by eating well, keeping hydrated and chewing our food well.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years. Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. Katharine also presents The Food Teacher show on UK Health Radio where she discusses the importance of food for health and wellbeing.
She has published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and the award-winning ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’. Look out for The Food Teacher at Food Festivals and events throughout the country during 2016.