Being mindful of your children's heart health today, can help lead them to a heart-healthy future.
I have worked in the area of heart health for a large part of my career. I have worked on food products that benefit the heart and over the years I have read, discussed and written all about how positive diet and lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on our heart health. In addition to that, due to a number of factors, some of my own loved ones are at very high risk of heart disease and require medication.
Even with all my work on heart health over the years, it’s interesting to note that the focus has been almost 100 per cent on adults and how they can make changes, as that is typically when heart disease is diagnosed. However, many landmark studies which have researched children, adolescents and heart disease have shown that, sadly, the roots of heart disease often go back to childhood.
What we do understand about heart disease in adults, through decades of research, is that there are many modifiable risk factors that can lead to it. These include high cholesterol and blood pressure levels, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, BMI (body mass index), type 2 diabetes and smoking.
What the research on children and adolescents is showing is that we are born with mostly optimal blood pressure, cholesterol levels and BMI. However, we are seeing negative changes in our children today. The research also shows that children presenting with these risk factors are more likely to exhibit them in adulthood.
So, what does that mean for us parents, grandparents and caregivers? It means that we have a chance to make a significant difference now for the future health of their hearts. That is good news!
Here are just a few heart-healthy nutrition tips to keep in mind when you are preparing food for your children.
- It’s the type of fat you use that’s important. Fats are an important part of the diet and are especially important for the developing brains of our children. It’s best to choose polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that are good for your heart. Choose vegetable or seed oils such as olive, avocado, sunflower or rice bran oils instead of butter, which is high in saturated fat.
- Choose wholegrain varieties of breads and cereals instead of overly processed varieties, eg. brown rice, wholemeal pasta, multigrain/wholemeal bread and wraps, rolled oats (porridge), Weet-bix and muesli.
- Already in NZ we are hot on sugar reduction and this is a good thing for our heart health! Avoid giving your kids sugary drinks such as fizzy drinks and juice, keep sweet foods such as biscuits, ice cream and chocolate as treats.
- Keeping the amount of salt in our foods to a minimum is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure. Try not to add much salt while cooking. Crackers are a popular snack option for kids, but not all crackers are created equal. There is a wide range of salt levels in crackers, look for those that have 300mg/100g or less sodium.
- It goes without saying, exercise is essential for kids! One great reason is to burn all that extra energy they seem to have floating about, but also because it’s great for their heart health. Exercise every day if you can!
- Two foods our kids can never eat too much of are fruits and vegetables. Include these at every meal and don’t forget they make an ideal snack, too.
Laura Tari is an expert food industry nutritionist with more than 11 years’ experience working for leading food companies in New Zealand and abroad. Laura has a Degree in Human Nutrition and a Diploma in Sports Science. She currently works as a freelance nutritionist and as a busy mum to two very active preschoolers.