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American Heart Month – Nutrition Now for Our Future

Janet Carter, MS, RD, LD, CLS

This February, as pink and red hearts fly through the mail, decorate store shelves, and encase chocolates for our loved ones, will we also think about caring for our own hearts? How about the heart health of our children?

According to the American Heart Association’s most recent data, on average, children in the U.S. have more ideal cardiovascular health levels and behaviors than adults – except in the areas of diet and physical activity.

The American Heart Association recommends having a “heart-to-heart” with loved ones about focusing attention on heart health as a family. It’s never too early to promote healthy habits, but teens are especially at an important moment in their development when they should be aware of the importance of heart health.

According to the AHA, teens who snack on highly processed foods and regularly eat their favorite junk food are at an increased risk for heart disease. In fact, on average, the majority of U.S. teens’ diet is considered “ultra-processed.”

"Ultra-processed foods are typically high in sugar, sodium (and) trans and saturated fats, are energy-dense and are low in fiber and micronutrients," said Dr. Zefeng Zhang, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These foods are putting Americans at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

 

Heart Health for Children: Cause for Concern?

Clinically, patients are most often diagnosed with cardiovascular disease in middle age. In addition, we typically don’t start having conversations about heart disease util we approach our thirties, forties, or fifties. But the roots of heart complications can begin in youth. For instance, atherosclerosis, the buildup of fats and plaque along artery walls, can begin in early youth development.

Children are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis when other health factors affect them, including obesity, diabetes, or other diseases. But supporting a healthy lifestyle is important for every child. Identifying the risk factors early can help support prevention. Parents can intervene now in order to support heart-healthy lifestyles for their children.

 

Having the Conversation

Preparing meals for our families using healthy ingredients is critical. But even more significant is inviting our children and teens into meal preparation. They’re involvement will help them learn the right decisions and build life skills that will support them into the future. This can include fun activities like picking foods for dinners from a list of healthy options, choosing new vegetables from the grocery store to try; as well as simple cooking tasks like washing produce, stirring ingredients, transferring cut-up items from cutting board to steamer, etc. (Of course, always be careful regarding food-borne contaminants and practice food and kitchen safety).

Make the heart-healthy choice the easy choice. Quick access to junk food is an ever-present temptation. But keeping healthy foods on hand – in the pantry and easy for kids and teens to reach for when they’re snacking – will encourage healthier habits. Also, it’s important to shy away from the “kid-friendly food” way of thinking. Kids are not born hating healthy options. People of all ages are capable of enjoying “junk” foods. Rather, presented in the right way, any food has the potential to be your child’s new favorite (or, at the very least, an acceptable addition to the repertoire).

In order to increase the odds of acceptance, you can try a few techniques:

  • Have a rule for everyone (including adults) in the home that all new foods should be tasted (at least one normal-sized bite) with an open mind and positive attitude.
  • Don’t pressure or attempt to coerce your child into trying something new, but have a pre-determined consequence for not following the previously-established rule of trying at least one bite.
  • Keep mealtimes positive and happy, focusing on family time. Never turn them into a battleground.
  • Never offer alternatives to the healthy meals that are prepared, especially more desirable alternatives like unhealthy “junk food” options. This will encourage picky eating, since the child will learn that they merely have to refuse dinner to be given some junk food.
  • Do not allow your child to have a snack prior to bedtime if they refused all or most of their dinner. This may result in protest or tears for 1-2 nights, but your child will then learn that, if they don’t eat the healthy foods provided at dinner, they don’t get anything else.

As with all parenting tactics, consistency is key. Children thrive on routine, so it’s important to have a consistent mealtime routine in place.

 


Source:

  1. American Heart Association
  2. American Heart Association
  3. Zhang et al
  4. Hong, Korean Circulation Journal

 

February 10, 2021

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