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Heart Disease Prevention Starts in Childhood

You may think of heart disease as a problem for adults, not for your young children. But the CDC says obesity affects 1 out of every 5 U.S. children. Diet and exercise habits started in childhood can start a lifetime of heart health ... or a lifetime of heart damage.

Mother and daughter cooking.

Some of the causes of adult heart disease that start in childhood and can be prevented are:

  • Obesity

  • Buildup of plaque (or fat deposits) in the arteries

  • Unhealthy changes in cholesterol levels

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Diabetes

  • Exposure to cigarette smoke

  • Lack of physical exercise (sedentary lifestyle)

  • Unhealthy diet

Although it’s true that heart disease risk can run in families, a healthy diet can help every child reduce their heart disease risk. If heart disease does run in your family, talk with your child’s healthcare provider about whether to have their cholesterol and blood pressure measured regularly, in addition to watching their weight.

Healthy food, healthy hearts

A balanced diet is important for children and teens, not just to prevent heart disease, but also to encourage healthy growth and development. A diet that prevents heart disease contains two important parts. The first is keeping daily calories at the right level. Eating too many calories can cause weight gain. This is hard on the heart. The second is limiting fat. The USDA recommends that children limit the amount of fats—especially saturated fats—that they eat. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature.

Here are guidelines for creating a heart-healthy childhood diet:

  • Breastfeed infants as long as possible. Aim for a full year, even as you introduce solid foods.

  • Feed your child mostly fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.

  • Watch portion sizes. Recommended portion sizes vary depending on age, sex, height, weight, and activity levels. See www.dietaryguidelines.gov or ask your child's healthcare provider for more information.

  • Don't eat fast food too often. If you do eat out, make healthy choices (like a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a bacon cheeseburger) and keep portion sizes reasonable.

  • Don't give your children sugary drinks. Instead, serve water and low-fat milk.

  • Infants younger than age 1 shouldn't be given any fruit juice. This is because it doesn't have any nutritional benefit for babies.

  • The USDA recommends that fruit intake should come from whole fruit. This is because whole fruits have more dietary fiber.

  • Choose whole grains, like brown rice, over refined grains, like white rice, for added nutrients and fiber.

  • Don’t make children to finish everything on their plate. Allow children to tell you when they feel full and are done.

Healthy lifestyle, healthy heart

Many daily choices that children and teens make affect their heart disease risk. Here are some choices you can encourage your children and teens to make that will help protect their hearts:

  • Children ages 3 to 5 should be physically active throughout the day, such as when they play. This enhances growth and development. Children ages 6 to 17 should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. This can be broken up throughout the day into 2 or more periods of activity. This helps to maintain good health and fitness. And it helps kids stay at a healthy weight as they grow.

  • Since many kids trade being active for sitting in front of the TV or a computer, keep screen time to a minimum. Replace sedentary behavior with active behavior whenever possible.

  • Don’t expose your kids to cigarette smoke. Ban smoking in your house and car. Don't take your kids to places where people smoke cigarettes. If you smoke, quitting smoking can help you and your kids.

Remember that you're the most important role model for your kids. Your children and teens will learn their best heart-healthy choices by watching you.

Online Medical Reviewer: Callie Tayrien RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.