Heart disease associated with lifestyle factors has been increasing among children and teens in recent years, generally associated with the rise in childhood obesity. By modeling and reinforcing healthy habits, parents can lead the way toward a heart-healthy future for their children. Here’s how:
Limit Screen Time
Let’s face it, we all enjoy our screen time, whether it’s television, computer, video games or engaging in social media. The more our kids see us using electronic devices, the more they will want to mirror our actions. Setting limits for screen time to no more than 1 to 2 hours per day will free you and your family to enjoy other activities such as family game night, taking a stroll after dinner, or even spring cleaning the kids’ closet, building a new set of habits that can easily be carried forward in life.
Exercise as a Family
Schedule regular opportunities to exercise as a family. Select the best times for the whole family to be active together. Make a weekly calendar of age-appropriate activities and be ready to modify them often to keep the motivation going. Use this opportunity as bonding time while creating new family memories.
Make Meals Heart Healthy
Eating healthy starts with healthy foods that taste good. When grocery shopping make sure to include nutrient-dense foods your family likes from all of the food groups; whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and meat alternatives such as beans, peas, lentils or soy-based products like tofu; fat-free or low-fat dairy products or fortified soy-based alternatives; and healthy fats like those found in avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. The American Heart Association recommends eating seafood high in Omega-3, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, at least two times per week. The Mediterranean Style-dietary pattern offers a simple and easy-to-follow guide on how to build a heart-healthy eating habit to last a lifetime.
Limit Fatty or Fried Foods
Fast foods can be tempting but also very high in saturated fats, the kind that raises the levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol. Desserts like ice cream and pastries, and other grain-based mixed dishes like macaroni and cheese and pizza, could be high in saturated fats. Eating smaller servings and less often are tips to help lower your saturated fat intake. Shifting to lower fat cheeses, lean cuts of meat, and cooking with olive oil or canola oils rather than butter or coconut oil are also good idea.
Limit Sugary Beverages and Desserts
Beverages that have added sugars include regular soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened waters. A typical 12-oz. serving of fruit drink could have 238 calories and 59 grams of added sugars (14 teaspoons). Desserts, sweet snacks, sweetened breakfast cereals and candy are also significant sources of added sugars. Limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories per day by reducing serving sizes, consuming these items less often, or consuming foods low in added sugars are strategies that can help you stay within the recommended limits. Infants and young children have no room for calories from added sugars. Shifting to fresh fruits as snacks and desserts, ready to eat cereals with less sugar, and beverages that contain no added sugars like water and unsweetened low- fat or fat-free dairy products are good practices.
Read the Labels
Understanding how to read nutrition labels is important for everyone in the family. Teach your children how to read nutrition labels by starting with the serving size at the top paying attention to the number of servings per container. Notice the calories per serving, and look for key nutrients such as dietary fiber, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Choose foods with less sodium, saturated fats, dietary cholesterol, and added sugars. When dining out, look for calories posted on restaurant menus and menu boards.
Cholesterol Testing for Kids
Elevated blood cholesterol levels is usually asymptomatic. The American Heart Association recommends that adults 20 or older check their cholesterol level every 4 to 6 years as long as the risk remains low. All children should have their cholesterol checked between age 9 and 11 and again between 17 and 21. Children with familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) should be screened as early as age 2. Overweight and obesity are also risk factors for heart disease. Healthy lifestyles like a healthy weight, healthy eating and regular exercise can help lower cholesterol levels, sometimes cholesterol-lowering medications are required, and in extreme cases medical procedures are necessary.
BMI in Children
Children over 2 years old, or teens with a BMI in the 85th percentile to less than 95th percentile are considered overweight, and those with a BMI equal to or greater than 95th percentile are considered obese. You can find you child's BMI by using the online CDC calculator for children and teens, and the adult calculator for family members over age 20. If you are worried about your child's weight, schedule a visit with your pediatrician to obtain a referral with a pediatric registered dietitian.