Raising Healthy Children

Heart disease prevention should start early

Starting heart-healthy habits in children is the one of the most effective ways to help them become healthy adults.

Statistics show that more and more children are overweight, which can lead to a number of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, the single largest cause of death in the United States.

Parents can wield enormous influence over their children’s health habits. The most important step they can take is to model a healthy lifestyle. Children learn much more by what you do rather than what you say. The American Heart Association has developed a list of recommendations to help parents. They focus on small but permanent changes rather than sudden, drastic changes. It is believed this approach is more effective than a series of short-term changes that cannot be sustained.

Get off that couch!
People must exercise regularly to lose weight and maintain weight loss. The AHA recommends that children and adolescents participate in 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

Tips for an active family:

  • Limit television viewing and computer time. These sedentary habits burn few calories and many children tend to snack during these times.
  • Go for frequent nature walks or walks around the neighborhood.
  • Ride bikes together.
  • Consider joining a community, church or school sports program. Soccer is a great sport because it is a team sport and children are constantly in motion. You don’t have to join a competitive league. Some programs focus more on skill-building.

Say no to junk food!
Eating patterns and genetics affect blood cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Children age 2 years and older should eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily as well as a wide variety of other foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Stick with lowfat dairy products and meats, including chicken, fish and lowfat cuts of beef (round and sirloin are best).
But getting children to eat healthy foods can be easier said than done. Parents cannot force their children to eat certain foods. They should first consider their children’s likes, dislikes and eating patterns. Studies at Duke University have shown that the more parents controlled and restricted their children’s eating, the more overweight children were. Experts believe that over-management takes away from children’s ability to manage themselves. Give your children a variety of healthy food choices and remember that it’s OK to eat some foods just for pleasure every once in a while.
Parents should also give their children structure and clear expectations. Set specific meal and snack times. A child who is not allowed to eat all day long will have a better chance of growing up slimmer than a child allowed to eat constantly. A set schedule also gives a child a sense of stability.

Set some specific goals for the next couple of weeks:

  • Take a 30-minute walk with your children each day.
  • Make a grocery list that includes healthy snack foods (fruits, vegetables, cheese, yogurt). Ask your children to provide input.
  • Limit television viewing to one hour or less a day. Within that set time limit, allow your child to choose what programs to watch (as long as the content is acceptable to you).

Showing your children how to follow a healthy lifestyle is one of the most important lessons you can teach them.

Published: April 13, 2006
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

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