Kids have it made: No bills to pay, no responsibilities to stress over, and a whole bunch of carefree play time. Small wonder heart disease affects only about one in 100 children—and typically, it’s something they’re born with.
None of this means that the lifestyle factors tied in with later heart disease—obesity, lack of physical activity, poor diet, high blood pressure, and so on—are issues to think about only after a person finds herself firmly on the ground of adulthood. There’s no switch that flips at age 18 to put a person at risk, and the habits learned in childhood tend to maintain later in life.
In other words? While heart disease can look like a distant concern for kids, instilling the healthy practices that stave it off are important.
“We know that childhood obesity is an indicator for adult obesity and obesity is the major risk factor for heart disease. So, habits that we develop in our children early on, like eating good foods, not eating junk food, and regular exercise—those are likely to extend into adulthood,” said Dr. Meg Fitzsimmons, of Hancock Family Medicine.
The plaque that causes adult issues can start in childhood
Arteries don’t become blocked overnight, and it isn’t just adult arteries that are susceptible to the plaque that builds up to cause dangerous issues within the heart. The advice your doctor likely has given you is just as applicable to your kids: Healthy diet and exercise are the best measures for keeping your heart healthy and your arteries clear.
Kids have those enviable metabolisms. It may seem like the juice boxes and cupcakes they regularly snack on have no ill effect on their health just because the calories don’t immediately show up in their middles like they do in later life.
Just because you can’t see the toll an unhealthy diet takes doesn’t mean the body isn’t absorbing some tough challenges. What you do while your kids are young lays the foundation for their later health. No pressure, right? But you benefit, as well, when you model a plant-heavy, well-rounded diet and regular exercise.
Easy ways to give kids a healthy start
Stanford Children’s Health provides a thorough overview of children’s heart health, including the following tips to get you started:
- Keep snacks to a minimum.
- Prepare foods that are low in fat and high in fiber; plant-based or Mediterranean diets are especially heart-healthy.
- Work in a lot of variety. If your meals include a rainbow of vegetables, you know you’re getting a range of nutrients.
- Forget fast food, which offers little in the way of nutrition and way too much fat and salt. It may take some practice, but you can prep meals ahead or find quick meal solutions that make a quick drive-through fix unnecessary (and much less appealing).
- Instead of using food as a reward, celebrate accomplishments in your family with an activity that the person of the hour gets to choose.
- Plan for playtime and exercise. Setting limits on sedentary activities like watching TV or playing video games can help ensure everyone’s getting plenty of physical activity.
- Consider taking part in structured activities like team sports, fitness classes, or dance classes.
There’s an additional benefit to following the ideas above: more activity, more family time, and a healthier diet also add up to a greater sense of well-being. Getting started on a heart-healthy path is a win for everybody—right now and on down the line.
Dr. Meg Fitzsimmons is a family and primary care physician at Hancock Family Medicine, 8535 N. Clearview Drive, Suite 200, McCordsville. She can be reached at 317-477-6400.