Health Encyclopedia

Prevention of Heart Disease Starts in Childhood

You may think of heart disease as a problem for adults, not for your young children. But diet and exercise habits started in childhood can begin a lifetime of heart health . . . or a lifetime of heart damage.

Some of the causes of adult heart disease that begin in childhood and can be prevented are:

  • Obesity

  • Buildup of plaque (or fat deposits) in the arteries

  • Unhealthy changes in cholesterol levels

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

Although it’s true that heart disease risk can run in families, a healthy diet can help every child reduce heart disease risk. If heart disease does run in your child’s family, talk with your child’s health care provider about whether to have your child’s cholesterol and blood pressure measured regularly, in addition to watching weight.

Woman and daughter are in the kitchen getting ready to spread peanut butter on some celery

Healthy food, healthy hearts

A balanced diet is important for children and adolescents, not just to prevent heart disease, but also to encourage healthy growth and development. A diet that prevents heart disease contains 2 important parts. The first is keeping daily calories at the right level. Eating too many calories can cause weight gain. This 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. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature.

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.

  • 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

    • 1.5 cups of fruit

    • 2.5 cups of vegetables

    • 6 ounces of whole grains

  • Avoid eating 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.

  • Avoid sugary drinks. Instead, serve water and low-fat milk.

  • Limit juice to less than 6 ounces per day and make sure it’s 100% fruit juice.

  • Total fat should be no more than 30% to 35% of total daily calories for children 2 years to 3 years old and 25% to 35% of calories for those up to 18 years old. Choose healthier fats: the mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

  • 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 and are done.

Healthy lifestyle, healthy heart

Many daily choices that children and adolescents 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 2 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 2 hours per day.

  • Don’t smoke. Ban smoking in your house and avoid places where people smoke cigarettes.

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.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd