By Kristen Raab
Unless there is a known condition, we tend to think of children as having healthy hearts. But that can change throughout their childhood.
Learning how to prevent this damage is the first step to keeping our children healthy.
Patrick H. McNulty, a cardiologist for the Bassett Health Care Network, said, “Almost all children in the United States are born with a healthy, brand-new cardiovascular system, which means a heart and a set of arteries that have developed in utero in an environment designed by nature to provide them with optimal nutrition and growth. Breast-fed babies receive optimal nutrition.”
The shift happens as American children get older and “often switch to diets with far too many calories and too much sugar and saturated fat,” he said.
In addition, they might become sedentary. “This combination causes children to begin developing high cholesterol levels, early diabetes and early forms of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by their early teen years,” McNulty said.
All children are at risk for these problems. However, at greater risk are children in families whose relatives have had a heart attack or stroke before age 50 or 60. If you are a parent of these children, ask your child’s pediatrician if testing is needed to check for high cholesterol.
While it seems complicated to determine the best meal plans, McNulty said, “Heart-healthy diets are really quite simple.”
His recommendations as to what to refrain from: Cookies and cake (seldom), sugary soft drinks (never), and red meat (seldom).
A hearty healthy menu includes oatmeal with 2 percent milk with a side of fruit for breakfast. Lunch could be a peanut butter and jam sandwich served on whole grain bread; add more fruit and some water to round out the meal.
Salad, chicken breast or fish and a couple of vegetables make a filling, healthy dinner.
Read, understand labels
Since parents make dietary choices for their children, parents should read and understand food labels.
Notice the sugar, saturated fat and sodium contents of all packaged foods. Saturated fat can really add up in processed foods, but it should be kept to less than 10 grams per day, said McNulty. Packaged foods also tend to have a lot of sodium, but the recommendation is to consume less than 2,000 milligrams per day.
“Caloric intake should be roughly 2,000 calories per day for most people,” he noted.
Having the time to prepare healthy meals is one of the greatest obstacles for working parents. McNulty suggests planning at least one “slow food” meal every day.
“Parents and kids (should) make time together to cook lean meat and vegetables, prepare an interesting salad, and sit down to eat together,” he said.
He recommends educating children to choose healthier options when a quick fix is needed. Rather than grabbing potato chips or cookies, make apples, bananas and granola bars available.
Some kids love to move, but others are more inactive because of video games, tablets, and a general shift in how children play with one another. However, it’s recommended that they get 60 minutes of daily exercise.
This can be anything that “gets the heart beating fast and the muscles moving, such as school gym class, hockey practice, walking home from school, and yard work,” he said.
Besides monitoring your child’s diet and encouraging an active lifestyle, there is another change to improve their health and your own.
“All parents and children should abstain absolutely from smoking and all tobacco products,” McNulty said.
For more information about heart health, visit the American Heart Association at www.heart.org and the U.S. National Institute of Health at www.usphs.nih.gov.