Is Your Child At Risk For Heart Disease?

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States and a major source of disability. You may think of heart disease as a problem for adults, not for your young children. But unhealthy diet and exercise habits are causing younger kids to develop health problems not seen until decades later.

We’ve all probably heard the sobering statistics:
  • One in three kids in the US are now overweight or obese
  • For the first time in generations life expectancy has actually decreased as a result of overweight
  • Teens in the US spend an average of 9 hours a day using media with less than 25% meeting physical activity recommendations (60 minutes moderate activity)
Fortunately, there are things that we as caregivers can do to reverse this trend. Megan Ratcliff, Ph.D., a pediatric clinical psychologist who works with the Center for Weight Management, a service of Gwinnett Medical Center, provides helpful tips on easy ways to implement healthful behaviors.

Nutritious food, healthy children

A balanced diet is important for children and adolescents, not just to prevent heart disease, but also to encourage optimal growth and development. There is a lot of confusion about what a healthy diet actually is with conflicting messages in the media. Total calories do matter (too much can lead to unhealthy weight gain), but the nutritional quality of the calories is equally important. No one can argue that a 1200 calorie diet of Cheetos and diet coke is healthy.

Here are some easy guidelines to encourage healthy eating for children of all ages:
  • Breastfeed infants as long as possible. Aim for a full year, even as you introduce solid foods.
  • Feed your child mostly fruits and vegetables, with whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.
  • Watch portion sizes. The recommended daily amounts of healthy foods for children are:
    • 2 ounces of lean protein (fish, chicken) every day for children between 2 years and 3 years old, 3 ounces to 4 ounces for children 4 years to 8 years old, and 5 ounces to 6 ounces for children 9 years to 18 years old
    • 2 cups of low-fat dairy for children under 8, and 3 cups for children 9 years to 18 years
    • 1.5 cups of fruit
    • 2.5 cups of vegetables
    • 6 ounces of whole grains
  • Limit fast food. If you do eat out, make healthy choices (like a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a bacon cheeseburger) and keep portion sizes reasonable.
  • Avoid sugary drinks. Instead, serve water and low-fat milk.
  • Limit juice to less than 6 ounces per day and make sure it’s 100% fruit juice.
  • Total fat should be no more than 30% to 35% of total daily calories for children 2 years to 3 years old and 25% to 35% of calories for those up to 18 years old. Choose healthier fats: the mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Choose whole grains like brown rice over refined grains like white rice for added nutrients and fiber.
  • Don’t require children to finish everything on their plate. This encourages them to override their natural hunger and fullness cues. Instead, allow children to tell you when they feel full and are done.
  • Limit constant snacking. Too often kids will get full on “filler foods” like goldfish and then not have room for a healthy dinner.

Active lifestyle, healthy children

Beyond food, it’s just as important to ensure that your child develops healthy behaviors and habits. Here are a few tips:
  • Get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week in childhood. This can be broken up throughout the day into 2 or more periods of activity.
  • Limit screen time to less than 2 hours per day.
  • Don’t smoke. Ban smoking in your house and avoid places where people smoke cigarettes.
  • Maintain a regular bedtime and be sure to get enough sleep. Teens need 8-10 hours/night, school age kids need 9-11 hours/night, and younger kids need even more.
One of the best things you can do as a caregiver is to not just talk about healthy living, but to live it. Remember that you are one of the most important role models for your kids. Implementing a healthy lifestyle, with a balanced diet and activity, begins with habits established during childhood.

Of course, if you and/or your children are struggling to maintain a healthy weight, the nutrition & weight management experts at Gwinnett Medical Center can provide the support and expertise you need. Our registered dietitians offer customized services, including Diet by Design and metabolism testing, as well as access to several resources to support the health of you and your family. 

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