When kids eat many of their favorite foods, such macaroni and cheese, popcorn, pizza and hamburgers, they are eating grains, even though they might not know it. Grains contain several nutrients important for healthy body function and protection against disease, but it’s important for kids and parents to choose the right kind of grains to receive the most health benefits.
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Grains are a leading source of dietary fiber, which kids need for proper bowel function to protect against some stomach cancers and constipation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fiber also helps the body feel full by eating fewer calories, which can prevent kids from snacking on unhealthy items like sweets or junk food. In adults, fiber can reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, so it’s important to establish good grain-eating habits while kids are young.
The USDA reports that grains are also good sources of the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate. These vitamins help your body metabolize the food you eat to release the energy needed for activities. B vitamins are also important for a healthy nervous system. The B vitamin, folate, also known as folic acid, helps your body form red blood cells.
Grains also contain three minerals that are important for the body: iron, magnesium and selenium. According to the USDA, you need iron to carry oxygen in the blood. Magnesium helps build bones and release energy from muscles. Selenium protects cells from damage and helps support a healthy immune system.
Carbohydrates are especially important to provide energy to active kids. Grains, fruits and vegetables are the leading sources of healthy carbohydrates. According to Kids Health, our bodies break down the starches in grains into sugar that we use as energy. For children over age 2, 50 to 60 percent of the calories eaten each day should come from carbohydrates.
Whole vs. Refined Grains
Foods with whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal, have much more fiber than refined grains, such as white bread and baked goods made with white flour. Manufacturers enrich many refined grains with B vitamins and some with iron. Whole grains contain magnesium and selenium. The USDA recommends that half of all the grains you eat each day come from whole-grain sources. Kids Health reports that school-age kids should eat four to six servings of grains each day, so two or three of these should be whole grains. Examples of a serving include one slice of bread, one cup of cereal or a half-cup of cooked rice or pasta.