Starting Children's Heart Health Early

Nutrition • Feb 14, 2023

Starting Children’s Heart Health Early

It’s important for kids to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Due to rising concerns about childhood health, the American Heart Association has designated February as Heart Month to raise awareness about preventing heart disease. That applies to children and adults, as we see increasing numbers of children in our cardiology clinics with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity.

It has been said that today’s youth are less active and more overweight than any previous generation in our country’s history, with more than 15% of all school-age children being considered obese or overweight. On average, children ages 8-12 in the United States spend 4-6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to 9 hours, while nearly half of the American youths aged 12-21 years are not vigorously active regularly. At the same time, it has become even more difficult for parents and healthcare workers to promote good nutrition with the increasing availability of unhealthy options for children. There has even been a new national debate on whether we should begin screening all children for cholesterol.

Positive encounters with meals and food at any age help set the stage for sensible eating habits throughout life. When adults provide and promote nutritious foods in a calm and positive setting, children will be more willing to make healthy food choices. Therefore, it is more important than ever for parents to discuss and promote good nutrition with their children at an early age and try to set a good example. If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit.

Proper child nutrition should always begin by including three meals a day and a few nutritious snacks while limiting foods high in sugar and fat. Children should also eat fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products, including three servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt to support their heart health. If a child’s nutrition is a sore subject in your house, you are not alone. The majority of parents worry about what their children eat or don’t eat, although most children get a decent variety of food and nutrition each week.

Here are a few tips to help with nutrition and avoiding mealtime hassles:

  • Don’t force food on your child. Children tend to eat when they are hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to clean his or her plate. Try to help control portion sizes, as most servings given are over the standard portion size.
  • Don’t reward with dessert. This sends the message that dessert is the best food which may only increase your child’s desire for sweets. Instead, you might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights or even redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt, or other heart-healthy choices.
  • Try to stay consistent. Try to serve meals and snacks at about the same time every day. Avoid juice, milk, and snacks for at least one hour before meals. If your child comes to the table hungry, they may be more motivated to eat.
  • Try to make meals and food choices fun. Serve broccoli and other vegetables with a favorite dip or sauce. You can even cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Many parents have a tough time getting their kids to eat vegetables and other heart-healthy foods regularly. But most experts agree that you can often get kids to eat more veggies by offering a variety of vegetables, setting a good example yourself, and mixing vegetables into the food your child already likes.
  • Have your children help. Let them help with preparing meals or snacks. For example, at the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. And don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. Children will eat what is available, so don’t have fast foods, junk food, soda, or juice readily available to your children.
  • Don’t make special requests. Preparing a separate meal for your child after they reject the original meal may encourage your child’s picky eating. Instead, keep serving your child heart-healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.
  • Don’t substitute vitamins and supplements for meals. Parents often worry that their kids don’t get enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from the foods they are eating. This often leads to their kids taking multivitamins and other supplements. Although this is helpful, it is usually a much better practice to try and provide these nutrients to your child through the foods he is eating. So look for foods high in calcium, vitamins, and iron or foods rich in fiber or protein, and don’t substitute supplements for heart-healthy meals.
  • Reward exercise the right way. Kids are often rewarded after exercise with unhealthy foods and sugary drinks, while many healthier, heart-healthy choices that taste great are also available. So the next time your child finishes their sports game or activity or even playing outside with friends, try giving them fruit slices or other healthy post-play snacks.
  • Always ask for help. If you’re concerned that picky eating is compromising your child’s growth and development, heart health, or that certain foods make your child ill, consult your child’s doctor.