How to Raise Heart-Healthy Kids: Tips from Lurie Children’s Heart Center

heart health kids

The CDC estimates nearly 1 in 5 children and adolescents is obese. This excess weight can cause strain on their cardiovascular systems. Just as adults set out each year with resolutions to eat healthy and move more, we should think as well of the youngest among us, about what they eat, how much they move, what forces govern their lifestyles, and how their routines both bad and good have significant implications on long-term heart health.

“Recent studies show that diet throughout the lifespan affects cardiovascular health, says Kendra Ward, MD, MSCI, director of the Preventive Cardiology Program at Lurie Children’s. “The diet a mother eats during pregnancy can impact the heart health of the child. Nutrition from infancy through adolescence can influence the heart health of a child, teen and adult. Dietary habits and levels of physical activity of young children are influenced by the eating and exercise habits of the family. During adolescence, these factors are also related to friend and peer group behavior, but a strong foundation of healthy eating and regular exercise tracks strongly into adulthood, despite other influences.”

Lurie Children’s Heart Center, ranked among the top Pediatric Cardiology and Cardiovascular Thoracic Surgery programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report, recognizes that establishing heart-healthy habits is simple in principle but difficult for many individuals and families. Particularly with children, it’s important to be patient and encouraging, to not make them feel ashamed of what are often very natural impulses to consume unhealthy food and drinks and engage in sedentary activities. Children thrive on routine, so making healthy eating and physical activity part of a consistent, structured lifestyle—one that includes parents—will go a long way in making it stick.  

Thinking of generational differences between parents and children today, the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle comes with unique challenges, especially when it comes to being physically active.

Therapeutic lifestyle changes are the first line of treatment for heart health particularly to address high cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as, modifying the diet and increasing physical activity. Children’s diets should be low in sugar but high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean meats.

Maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent heart disease in the future. The obesity epidemic has led to a significant increase in children with dyslipidemia, elevated cholesterol or fats (lipids) in the blood.

Cholesterol Concerns

Cholesterol levels in U.S. youth have improved from 1999 to 2016, but only half of children and adolescents are in the ideal range and 25 percent are in the clinically high range, according to a 2019 study published in JAMA, led by Amanda Marma Perak, MD. MS, Lurie Children’s cardiologist. The study is the first to report estimated prevalence of high cholesterol in youth in recent years, analyzing nationally representative data from more than 26,000 children and adolescents (ages 6-19 years).

“High cholesterol in childhood is one of the key risk factors for developing heart disease later in life,” says Dr. Marma Perak from Lurie Children’s, who is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Cardiology and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Although we see favorable trends in all measures of cholesterol in children and adolescents over the years, we still need to work harder to ensure that many more kids have healthy cholesterol levels. We know that high cholesterol is the critical initiator of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, and even in childhood it is associated with these changes in the blood vessels that can lead to heart attack in adulthood.”

Prioritizing Nutrition and Modeling Healthy Behavior

Trying to eat a nutritious diet seems as complex as ever, with so much information, so many opinions, so many options, and the vast influence of food marketers. Establishing a child’s relationship with food in a healthy and constructive way is also challenging. Parents today need to consider whether or how much to offer food as a reward, or as a source of comfort, or as leverage to compel certain behaviors from their children.

Students taste various vegetables at Pilot Light’s celebration of Food Day. Photos by Maura Flaherty

Arguably, there is no more powerful influence on a child’s preventive health profile than behavior they see modeled by their parents. Of course, there are complex influences at every level of the family, and many adults struggle to eat well and be active even without the added burden of being an influence on children. However, parents can positively impact their child’s current and future health with small changes both to lifestyle and diet.

Lurie Children’s Preventive Cardiology Program is committed to improving the health of children at risk for heart disease. We care for children who have cardiac risk factors for heart and vascular disease which may include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and a family history of heart attacks and strokes.

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