February is Kids’ Heart Health Month
We all have hearts–both physically and hopefully, emotionally! Even though heart disease is more commonly a disease of the aged, we can certainly employ various health-enhancing behaviors in our children to foster heart-healthy habits to support us down the road.
While there are children born with congenital heart disease and defects, most children do not suffer from heart disease as adults know it. However, habits and behaviors we form in childhood can certainly bleed into adulthood and cause disease. Children CAN suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure), but this is normally seen in older teens with risk factors (high salt intake, inactivity, poor nutrition habits) or secondary to another health condition, like kidney disease. Your child’s pediatrician will check their blood pressure at every checkup.
Some children, even those who are very young, can suffer from high cholesterol. Though this is usually due to familial (genetic) hypercholesterolemia, diagnosis and treatment is still warranted. Older teens can suffer from diet-induced hypercholesterolemia.
From the smallest eaters, you can help your children keep a heart healthy lifestyle that will serve them well into adulthood. High salt (sodium) intake is a risk factor for hypertension. Though not usually a concern in babies and young children, oversalting food can lead to an intolerance of unsalted foods and potentially create a bad habit down the line. While a scant amount of salt while cooking is definitely necessary (nobody likes unsalted broccoli), instead of a salt shaker on the table try a spice blend like MRS DASH, black pepper, paprika, cayenne, or other fun spices. “Processed” foods often have a long shelf life largely owing to the sodium content of the food, so we try to only allow 1-2 of these foods per day. Fresh fruit, vegetable, and unsalted nut/seed/legume intake can actually help with sodium metabolism because of other mineral content, so there’s your 87th reason to have your kids fill up on unprocessed plants.
Omega3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fatty acid, is highly associated with various health benefits–notably against heart disease. It’s never too young to pump up your child’s intake of omega3 fatty acids. Our intakes tend to be unfavorably balanced with omega6 fatty acids and meager in omega3s. From a small age, acclimating children to sardines and anchovies (bones removed), salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, and seafood like shrimp and scallops is a great low mercury way to harness a lot of omega3s. Though plant-based omega3s exist in seaweed, walnuts, and olive oil, they are poorly absorbed by human bodies.
Dietitians are always on about fiber. With good reason! Fiber intake is associated with many positive health benefits. Notably, it tends to have a favorable effect on cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Childhood is a wonderful time to foster good fiber habits. There are multiple kinds of fiber–from fruits, vegetables, legumes, tubers, nuts, seeds, whole grains and starches, and NOT from synthetic sources like processed foods, bars, etc. Oats in particular have a specific fiber, beta-glucan, which seems to help move cholesterol along in the body and is an excellent breakfast/snack choice for kids. Current recommendations for fiber range from 15 grams for 5 year-olds to 25 grams for 15 year-olds, though you can certainly exceed this number if you start gradually and titrate intake up in order to avoid unpleasant gastrointestinal distress.
Little hearts need to beat! A daily movement routine is a key soldier against heart disease. Whether it’s walking, running, active play (tree climbing counts), or an organized sport, making movement part of daily life is key to fostering a healthy and long-term relationship with moving one’s body. This is why screen time should be limited, because it often displaces time spent moving around.
While a bit of sugar is part of growing up, sugar intake can easily top 100 grams (or more) per day from added sugars (those not naturally present, like in dairy products/fruits) even from “healthy” (marketed) foods. Start reading labels and becoming sugar-conscious. There is no need to be sugar fearful or overly sugar lenient. It’s a matter of the threshold that works for you and your family. Added sugars ARE associated with heart disease risk (among other things), but I would rather a teaspoon of honey than a teaspoon of an artificial sweetener any day.
In any case, Kids’ Heart Health Awareness Month should really be every month. May all of your family’s hearts beat for many decades to come!