Did you know the seeds for a healthy heart in adulthood are often planted during childhood? Children with poor diets and inadequate exercise can develop a range of heart-related diseases later in life.
Parents and other caregivers can set children on a path to a healthy heart, says Dr. Linda Muhonen, a pediatric cardiologist at CHOC Children’s who also leads CHOC’s Lipid Clinic. (“Lipid” is a general term for molecules in the body that include fat.) Often, this means a permanent lifestyle change for families.
“For kids to have a healthy heart during their lives, families have to lead more healthy lifestyles from the start,” Dr. Muhonen says. Parents should model heart-healthy habits to their children. Prevention is the best way to avoid heart problems later in life.”
Dr. Muhonen and the Lipid Clinic staff help children with genetic dyslipidemias or who are overweight or obese lower their risk for developing heart disease and related illnesses such as asthma or diabetes. They study the patient’s history, examine the child, prescribe medication if necessary and set up new dietary and exercise goals for kids and families with the help of a dietician and exercise physiologist , she says.
“The bottom line is that our kids are developing diabetes in early adolescence,” Dr. Muhonen says. “Kids can also develop asthma, hypertension and fat in the liver, which can lead to chronic liver disease all related to obesity. You can help prevent these illnesses by not having a sedentary lifestyle and not becoming obese.”
Dr. Muhonen offers some dietary and exercise tips for parents to establish heart-healthy habits for their children:
- Avoid soda, juice and other sugar-sweetened drinks; offer the kids fat-free milk at meals and water the rest of the day. “You should avoid drinking your calories,” Dr. Muhonen says.
- Children should eat three meals a day with snacks of fruits and vegetables in between.
- Don’t let the children skip meals. Skipping meals can lead them to overeat at the next meal and can slow down your metabolism.
- Have kids take their lunch to school instead of buying lunch. Pack a heart-healthy lunch such as a tuna or turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with a piece of fruit and some pretzels or string cheese, and a bottle of water.
- Never reward children with food. Encourage kids to get an hour of physical activity each day. This can be whatever activity or sport interests the child. “You don’t need a gym membership or equipment to get some exercise,” she says.
- Warn children about the dangers of cigarette smoking and encourage them never to start.