Toddlers are famously picky eaters, but parents may be doing their young child’s future gut a huge favor if they insist on a healthy diet.

New research shows that toddlers who eat plenty of fish and vegetables, and precious few sugary drinks, are less likely to develop inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) by the time they are teenagers. IBD includes conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

“These novel findings are consistent with the hypothesis that early-life diet, possibly mediated through changes in the gut microbiome, may affect the risk of developing IBD,” concluded the researchers led by Annie Guo, a pediatric nutritionist with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

For the study, researchers analyzed diet and health data on more than 81,000 children who participated in two large-scale studies in Sweden and Norway.

Parents filled out detailed questionnaires about their children’s diet at ages 12 to 18 months, and again at 30 to 36 months.

Using that info, researchers estimated each child’s diet quality using measurements of meat, fish, fruit, vegetable, dairy, sweets, snacks and drinks consumption.

A higher-quality diet had more veggies, fruit and fish, and less meat, sweets, snacks and drinks.

Researchers then tracked each child for an average of 15 to 21 years, to see whether their diet influenced their risk of inflammatory bowel disease.

During that period, 131 kids were diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, 97 with colitis and 79 with unclassified inflammatory bowel disease. The average age of diagnosis was between 12 and 17.

Medium- and high-quality diets at the age of 1 were associated with a 25% lower risk of inflammatory bowel disease as a teenager, even after adjusting for other factors, researchers found.

Specifically, high fish intake at age 1 reduced the risk of colitis by 54%, as well as lowering the overall risk for all inflammatory bowel diseases.

On the other hand, heavy consumption of sugary drinks was associated with a 42% increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease.

The findings were published Jan. 30 in the journal Gut.

Based on these results, it might be time to recommend a “preventive” diet to protect the gut health of young children, says an accompanying editorial penned by Dr. Ashwin Ananthakrishnan, a gastroenterologist with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“This includes ensuring adequate dietary fiber, particularly from fruit and vegetables, intake of fish, minimizing sugar-sweetened beverages and preferring fresh over processed and ultra-processed foods and snacks,” Ananthakrishnan wrote.

More information

Stanford Medicine has more about nutrition for toddlers.

SOURCE: BMJ, news release, Jan. 30, 2024