Heart Disease Prevention Starts in Childhood
You may think of heart disease as a problem for adults, not for your young children.
But the CDC says 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
Buildup of plaque (or fat deposits) in the arteries
Unhealthy changes in cholesterol levels
High blood pressure (hypertension)
Exposure to cigarette smoke
Lack of physical exercise (sedentary lifestyle)
Although it’s true that heart disease risk can run in families, a healthy diet can
help every child reduce their heart disease risk. If heart disease does run in your
family, talk with your child’s healthcare provider about whether to have their cholesterol
and blood pressure measured regularly, in addition to watching their 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 two 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
Feed your child mostly fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean protein,
and low-fat dairy.
Watch portion sizes. Recommended portion sizes vary depending on age, sex, height,
weight, and activity levels. See www.dietaryguidelines.gov or ask your child's healthcare provider for more information.
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.
Infants younger than age 1 shouldn't be given any fruit juice. This is because it
doesn't have any nutritional benefit for babies.
The USDA recommends that fruit intake should come from whole fruit. This is because
whole fruits have more dietary fiber.
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 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:
Children ages 3 to 5 should be physically active throughout the day, such as when
they play. This enhances growth and development. Children ages 6 to 17 should get
about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week.
This can be broken up throughout the day into 2 or more periods of activity. This
helps to maintain good health and fitness. And it helps kids stay at a healthy weight
as they grow.
Since many kids trade being active for sitting in front of the TV or a computer, keep
screen time to a minimum. Replace sedentary behavior with active behavior whenever
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're the most important role model for your kids. Your children and
teens will learn their best heart-healthy choices by watching you.