Part of the reason heart disease does so much damage is the fact that it’s not taken seriously until most of us are older.
But helping your kids take steps toward a healthier heart today can make a big difference in their life as they grow older.
Here is a list of tips for parents to help their kids reduce their risk for heart disease.
Know your family history when it comes to heart disease
When consulting with your children’s pediatrician early on, he/she probably asked if there was a history of heart disease in the family. You may think of heart disease as a problem for adults and not for children. However, diet and exercise habits started in childhood can put your children on a lifetime path of heart health or one of heart damage.
Some of the causes of adult heart disease that start in childhood and can be prevented are:
- Buildup of plaque in the arteries
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says obesity affects 1 out of every 6 U.S. children. Experts agree that healthy eating habits from an early age can lower the risk of developing not only heart disease, but several other serious diseases later on. A healthy diet designed to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases is one that will benefit the entire family regardless of their ages.
Feed them a heart healthy diet
On average, American children and teens eat more saturated fat and have higher blood cholesterol levels than young people their age in most other developed countries. The rate of cardiovascular disease tends to be in line with cholesterol levels. One study found early signs of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) in 7% of children between ages 10 and 15 years, with the rate twice as high between ages 15 and 20.
According to the American Heart Association, a heart-healthy diet from an early age lowers cholesterol and if followed through adolescence and beyond, should reduce the risk of heart disease in adulthood.
A balanced diet is important not just to prevent heart disease, but also to encourage healthy growth and development. A diet that prevents heart disease contains two important parts. The first is keeping daily calories at the right level as eating too many calories causes weight gain which puts extra strain on the heart. The second is limiting their daily fat intake. The USDA recommends that children especially limit saturated fats.
Here are some guidelines for creating a heart-healthy childhood diet:
- Breastfeed infants (if possible) for a full year.
- For children between the ages of 12 months and 2 years with a family history of obesity or heart disease, reduced-fat milk should be considered.
- Feed your child mostly fruits and vegetables, with whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.
- Watch portion sizes.
- Avoid eating fast food too often. If you do eat out, make the healthiest choices (more food chains are offering healthy options)
- Avoid sugary and soda drinks. Instead, serve water and low-fat milk.
- Regarding fruit juice, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children younger than 1 year of age not be given any fruit juice. No more than 4 ounces of 100% juice for children ages 1-3 years, no more than 6 ounces for children ages 4-6, and no more than 8 ounces per day for children age 7 and older.
- Total fat should be no more than 30% to 35% of total daily calories for children 2 -3 years old and 25% to 35% of calories for those 3-18 years old. Choose healthier fats which are the mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
- Choose whole grains like brown rice or quinoa over white rice.
- Don’t require children to finish everything on their plate.
Encourage physical activity
Children should ideally get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week. Since many kids sit in front of the television or are on a computer or other electronic devices, keep their screen time to less than 2 hours per day. Encourage and support interest in sports, dance or other physical activities by enrolling them in teams or classes. At the bare minimum, go walking, biking and/or hiking as a family.
Avoid second-hand smoke
If you smoke, then quit smoking. Ban smoking in your house and avoid going to places where people are smoking cigarettes.
Be a positive role model
Remember that you are the most important role model for your kids. Your children and teens will learn their heart healthy choices and develop habits by watching you.
If heart disease does run in your family, talk with your child’s healthcare provider about how often to have his/her cholesterol and blood pressure checked and what healthy weight ranges are per age. Be sure to also educate and talk with your children about the reasons for your concerns and the heart healthy choices you are making.