You may think of heart disease as a problem for adults, not for young children. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affects 1 out of every 5 U.S. children. Diet and exercise habits started in childhood can start a lifetime of heart health—or a lifetime of heart damage.
Some of the causes of adult heart disease that start in childhood and can be prevented are:
- A buildup of plaque (or fat deposits) in the arteries
- Unhealthy changes in cholesterol levels
- High blood pressure
- Exposure to cigarette smoke
- Lack of physical exercise
- Unhealthy diet
Although it’s true that heart disease risk can run in families, a healthy diet and regular exercise can help every child reduce heart disease risk, as the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in children have been increasing,” says Syeeda Alam, DO, a family medicine physician with Steward Health Care and Steward Medical Group. “Regular check-ups with your child’s health care provider are important to identify heart disease risk factors, such as obesity and diabetes, and manage them early on. If heart disease does run in your family, talk with your child’s health care provider about whether to have his or her cholesterol and blood pressure measured regularly, in addition to watching weight.”
Healthy food, healthy hearts
A balanced diet is important for children and teens, not just to prevent heart disease, but also to encourage healthy growth and development. A diet that prevents heart disease contains three important parts. The first is keeping daily calories at the right level. Eating too many calories can cause weight gain and is hard on the heart. The second is limiting fat. The USDA recommends that children limit the amount of fats — especially saturated fats — that they eat. The third is eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables. A good rule of thumb is to eat fruits and vegetables with a variety of colors to get a well-rounded source of nutrients.
Here are guidelines for creating a heart-healthy childhood diet:
- Breastfeed infants as long as possible. Aim for a full year, even as you introduce solid foods.
- Feed your child mostly fruits and vegetables, with whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Limit red meat and choose leaner cuts if you decide to eat red meat.
- Watch portion sizes. The recommended daily amounts of healthy foods for children are:
- 2 ounces of lean protein (fish, chicken) every day for children between 2 years and 3 years old, 3 ounces to 4 ounces for children 4 years to 8 years old, and 5 ounces to 6 ounces for children 9 years to 18 years old
- 2 cups of low-fat dairy for children under 8, and 3 cups for children 9 years to 18 years
- 5 cups of fruit
- 5 cups of vegetables
- 6 ounces of whole grains
- Don’t eat fast food too often. If you do eat out, make healthy choices (like a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a bacon cheeseburger) and keep portion sizes reasonable.
- Don’t give your children sugary drinks. Instead, serve water and low-fat milk.
- Keep desserts and candy to a minimum and consider using fresh fruit as an alternative for sweets.
- Choose whole grains like brown rice over refined grains like white rice for added nutrients and fiber.
- Don’t require children to finish everything on their plate. Allow children to tell you when they feel full.
Healthy lifestyle, healthy heart
Many daily choices that children and teens make affect their heart disease risk. Here are some choices you can encourage your children and teens to make that will help protect their hearts:
- Get about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week in childhood. This can be broken up throughout the day into two or more periods of activity.
- Since many kids trade being active for sitting in front of the television or a computer, keep screen time to less than two hours per day.
- Don’t expose your kids to cigarette smoke. Ban smoking in your house and car. Don’t take your kids to places where people smoke cigarettes. If you smoke, quitting smoking can help you and your kids.
Remember that you are the most important role model for your kids. Your children and teens will learn their best heart-healthy choices by watching you.
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