Whole grains have been getting a lot of attention as an important food source for maintaining a healthy weight and preventing long-term illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Whole grain foods such as whole wheat bread, cereal, and brown rice add texture and flavor to foods and may help children and adults feel fuller between meals, discouraging excessive snacking, overeating, and promoting healthy weight. Here’s the lowdown on whole grains, especially how important they are for children.
What are whole grains?
All whole grains contain three parts:
- Bran: Outer shell containing phytochemicals, B vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber
- Endosperm: Inner portion containing proteins, carbohydrates, and B vitamins
- Germ: Inner core containing B vitamins, vitamin E, unsaturated fat, phytochemicals, and antioxidants
According to the Whole Grains Council, whole grains contain all three parts, along with their nutrients, after processing. In contrast, refined grains do not have all three components. For example, when manufacturers make white bread, they strip away the bran, germ, and key nutrients, including much of the fiber. After processing, they add back key nutrients such as folate and calcium (called fortification), but not the natural fiber. Some experts believe that the fiber and nutrients naturally found in whole grains are the secret to their health-promoting benefits.
How much whole grains do children need?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming whole grains for at least half of their grain intake, or have at least three servings of whole grains daily. Sixteen or more grams of whole grains are equivalent to a full serving for adults.
For children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 1/2 gram of fiber for every kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of body weight for children ages 2 years and older. Adding five grams to a child’s age is an easy and accurate way to determine minimum daily fiber needs. If your toddler is three years old, that would translate into eight grams of dietary fiber daily. Foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains also contain fiber.
During the first year, most babies are introduced to grains at 4-6 months of age, depending on their readiness. The first grain is typically a single iron-fortified grain source such as rice, barley, or oats. At 6-8 months of age, you can mix up the grains and advance to mixed whole grains and refined breads, crackers, and cereals. The key at this age is exposure and experience. Don’t get caught up on how much fiber or whole grains your baby is eating, but make sure grains make a regular appearance each day.
During toddlerhood, you’ll want to regularly expose your child to a wide variety of grains, with the goal of balancing whole grain and refined grain sources equally.
An easy way to accomplish this is to try to include three sources of grains each day (half of them from whole grains) for the 2- to 3-year-old, and four sources for the 4-year-old.
Be aware, however, that giving your toddler excessive amounts of whole grains (or exclusively whole grain foods) can interfere with an appetite and may lead to inadequate caloric intake and poor growth. As your child grows out of the younger ages and into the school age years, you’ll want to minimally offer whole grains half of the time, and tip the balance to more whole grains in the diet than refined grains.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2019
- Make whole grains a part of your child’s daily diet to encourage adequate fiber intake and healthy weight.
- Including whole grains in your child’s diet early on is a key to promoting healthy weight and preventing chronic illness.
- Look for extra fiber alternatives in fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
- Offering excessive amounts of whole grains can be counter-productive to normal growth in the young child.