Most people don’t think to focus on their heart health until they get a wake-up call. This may come in the form of newly diagnosed high blood pressure, concerning cholesterol levels, or even a chest pain scare. Although damage can be reversed even at that point through intensive lifestyle and diet adjustments, the ideal situation would be to set yourself up for a healthy heart proactively, BEFORE these signs of illness show up.
As parents, we have the opportunity to set our children up for a lifetime of heart health by helping them develop a few healthy habits from an early age.
1. Decrease their sugar intake.
Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods around, and humans just weren’t designed to eat the quantities of sugar that are presented in our society today. Several studies have shown that the risk of cardiovascular disease is directly correlated with the dietary intake of foods with a high glycemic load (sugars and other simple carbohydrates).
The World Health Organization recommends that children eat or drink no more than 25 grams, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar daily. Unless you’re actively trying to avoid sugar, your little humans probably get way more than 25 grams each day. Let’s look at some examples:
- One small bag of 100% fruit gummy snacks – 10-13 grams of sugar
- One TBSP of ketchup – 4 grams of sugar
- One 4-oz container of kids’ fruit yogurt – 9-16 grams of sugar
- One 8-oz cup of breakfast cereal (without milk) – up to 20 grams of sugar
- One 8-oz cup of 100%, “no sugar added” fruit juice – 18 – 30 grams of sugar
- One kid-sized hot chocolate from your favorite coffee chain – 24 grams of sugar
- One 12-oz can of lemon-lime soda – 38 grams of sugar
These numbers do include organic brands as well, in case you were wondering.
Natural sugars that are already found in a whole food, like the sugar in a piece of fruit or a cup of whole milk, aren’t the sugars we worry about the most. It’s the added sugars, whether they are natural (like honey or fruit juice) or super processed (like high fructose corn syrup). Though they are different levels of bad, they are all bad in the end. Sugar sweetened beverages and juices are the easiest to just cut out and replace with water. You can save your child 20-60 grams of sugar by doing so.
2. Replace processed food with real, whole foods.
Helping your kids opt out of processed foods will eliminate tons of added sugar, preservatives, harmful chemicals, and artificial colors and flavors from their diets. In addition, adding real whole foods in place of processed foods will give them all kinds of heart-healthy nutrients.
Offer them a rainbow of veggies each day. Not all children will love all veggies, and that’s okay. Offer veggies of all colors each day – even the ones they say they don’t like. Kids’ tastes will change over time so something they hated last month might taste great to them now, especially if prepared in a different way. Try them roasted, steamed, drizzled with olive oil or grass-fed butter, sprinkled with organic cheese, and if all else fails, blend them into sauces or smoothies. If there are a few veggies they always love, make sure those are served regularly. The antioxidants, healthy fiber, and anti-inflammatory properties in these nutritional powerhouses will help keep your kids’ hearts vibrant and strong.
Make sure they are getting plenty of healthy fats (and get rid of the bad fats). Monounsaturated fats, certain saturated fats, and Omega-3 fatty acids are the healthy fats that we all need. Thank goodness the old idea that fat makes you fat has been refuted! Eating plenty of fatty foods like
wild-caught salmon, pasture-raised eggs, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts will provide healthy Omega-3 fats for your kids’ growing brains and hearts. Replace vegetable oils (canola, corn, soybean) with healthier choices like olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. As for hydrogenated oils – found in margarine, shortening and hiding in processed baked goods – avoid them at all costs! They will increase the risk of heart disease as well as obesity and obesity-related illnesses.
3. Encourage movement.
As the most important muscle in our bodies, the heart needs to exercise regularly to stay healthy and strong. Encourage your kids to get out and move every day. As they get older, having them participate in organized sports and activities they love will help ensure that they are staying active and keeping their hearts working hard. But even in the toddler years, get them outside playing. Go on walks with them, compete in races with them in your back-yard, and make active play a part of their daily routines. You might even get your heart pumping too while you’re at it!
So there you have it. You are so capable of helping your little ones establish these healthy habits so that their hearts can keep them healthy from an early age on through the years.
To vibrant health,
Dr. Jamilet MD