Dietary Carbohydrates and Childhood Functional Abdominal Pain

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Childhood functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) affect a large number of children throughout the world. Carbohydrates (which provide the majority of calories consumed in the Western diet) have been implicated both as culprits for the etiology of symptoms and as potential therapeutic agents (e.g., fiber) in childhood FGIDs. In this review, we detail how carbohydrate malabsorption may cause gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g., bloating) via the physiologic effects of both increased osmotic activity and increased gas production from bacterial fermentation. Several factors may play a role, including: (1) the amount of carbohydrate ingested; (2) whether ingestion is accompanied by a meal or other food; (3) the rate of gastric emptying (how quickly the meal enters the small intestine); (4) small intestinal transit time (the time it takes for a meal to enter the large intestine after first entering the small intestine); (5) whether the meal contains bacteria with enzymes capable of breaking down the carbohydrate; (6) colonic bacterial adaptation to one's diet, and (7) host factors such as the presence or absence of visceral hypersensitivity. By detailing controlled and uncontrolled trials, we describe how there is a general lack of strong evidence supporting restriction of individual carbohydrates (e.g., lactose, fructose) for childhood FGIDs. We review emerging evidence suggesting that a more comprehensive restriction of fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAP) may be effective. Finally, we review how soluble fiber (a complex carbohydrate) supplementation via randomized controlled intervention trials in childhood functional gastrointestinal disorders has demonstrated efficacy.

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