How Fermented Dairy Foods Can Keep Kids Well This Winter (and All Year Long)

Fermented foods (aka probiotics) like yogurt are widely touted as a way to improve gut health. A pediatric registered dietitian explains.

It’s that time of year again: sick season! You know the drill. Your kids have runny noses, husky coughs and other not-so-fun symptoms. While we can’t keep our families healthy all the time, it turns out that we can boost their chances of staying well with a healthy gut.

What does a healthy gut have to do with your child’s upper respiratory infection? Quite a bit, says Emily Ostrowski, Pediatric Registered Dietitian and member of the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We’re beginning to understand that gut health is a key to wellness, including a healthy immune system. Recent studies show that gut health even affects brain function,” she says.

Understanding gut health

The gut microbiome is a bustling community of trillions of microorganisms residing in our digestive tract. It plays a critical role in digestion, nutrient absorption and immune function. Maintaining a diverse and balanced microbiome promotes good gut health.

How does what you eat or drink come into play? 

Probiotics and fermented foods like yogurt promote good gut health due to the addition of “good” bacteria during fermentation. 

“The heat treatment, incubation period and reduction in pH create an environment where beneficial bacteria thrive,” says Ostrowski. “The introduction of live organisms to fermented foods fosters gut health and overall well-being.”

Research suggests that the regular consumption of fermented dairy products in childhood may positively impact immune system development. One study, says Ostrowski, showed that children ages 3-6 who consumed fermented milk products twice a day showed a lower incidence of the common cold compared to control groups.

“Probiotic dairy foods can improve the overall immune system. They may also prevent heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis, ”says Ostrowski.

Fermented Foods for Gut Health

Dairy foods that increase gut health

Yogurt, kefir and cultured cottage cheese all offer gut health benefits and nutrition. “Fermented dairy products are not only good for the immune system, they are nutrient-dense,” says Ostrowski. 

You can make probiotic dairy foods more appealing to children in a few ways. Try offering flavored yogurts and kefir rather than plain, and adding mix-ins to cottage cheese. Check kid-friendly recipes online for more ideas.

Ostrowski notes that when buying fermented foods, it’s important to check labels for the presence of “live active cultures.” Otherwise, the food may not have the desired probiotic properties.

Lactose-free and dairy-free probiotics

What if your child has a dairy allergy or is lactose intolerant? Non-dairy soy or other non-dairy yogurts with added active cultures are a good substitute. 

Additionally, check out fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut. Or, look for pickles made through the fermentation process instead of with vinegar.

Kombucha, a slightly bubbly fermented black tea drink, has immunity-boosting benefits. Again, checking for the presence of “live active cultures” in these products is key. 

While some kids may dig into spicy kimchi and tangy sauerkraut, others won’t be quite so enthusiastic. Introducing children to these foods requires a gentle approach.

“Parents can start by slowly incorporating stronger-tasting probiotic foods into meals. Role model for your kids, such as drinking flavored kombucha and having them try some. Introducing these items gradually can help develop children’s palates,” Ostrowski suggests.

For those inclined, fermenting vegetables at home, such as carrots, a kid favorite, can be a rewarding and delicious activity. Get the kids involved and they may be more likely to eat it! 

While there is no sure-fire way to ward off colds, flu and viruses, the probiotic foods you offer your family have an impact on immunity and total health. Plus, says Ostrowski, a healthy diet in general has far-reaching benefits.

“Besides probiotic foods, include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins in your meals. By encouraging your children to enjoy a well-balanced diet, you not only help strengthen their immune systems. You help them develop lifelong habits for good health.”

For more information on dairy foods and your health visit milkmeansmore.org. Metro Parent has more advice on getting kids to eat healthy.

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.

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