It’s well known that teaching children about proper nutrition can set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. Now new research that shows that those healthy lessons could be even more crucial to children’s health than we thought.
According to research presented at an American Heart Association conference, obese children can develop signs of heart disease and significant heart muscle abnormalities as early as the age of eight. This data demonstrates that unhealthy eating and exercise habits—which develop very early on in life—can catch up with kids much sooner than previously thought.
The study observed 20 obese children and 20 average-weight children between the ages of 8 and 16. Researchers found that children with obesity had 27 percent more muscle mass in the left ventricle of their hearts and 12 percent thicker heart muscles, both of which signify heart disease. Forty percent of those children were considered to be at high risk for adult cardiac strain and cardiac disease because their thicker heart muscles impaired their hearts’ pumping ability.
The study did exclude children with diabetes and those too large to fit inside the MRI scanning machine, so the study’s findings are estimates at best, and might actually underestimate the extent of the childhood obesity problem.
The ultimate conclusion of the study was that heart problems during childhood can lead to more complicated health issues in adulthood and possible premature death due to heart disease.
This is a huge concern for kids and parents alike, since obesity among 6- to 12-year-olds in the United States has more than doubled over the last thirty years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in three children ages two to 19 are either overweight or obese, which puts them on the path toward developing other heart health issues, including diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Parents can act as the first line of defense against childhood obesity by helping their children develop healthy habits and learn to make better choices.
“Parents should be highly motivated to help their children maintain a healthy weight,” said Linyuan Jing, Ph.D., lead study author and researcher at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pennsylvania. “Ultimately we hope that the effects we see in the hearts of these children are reversible; however, it is possible that there could be permanent damage. This should be further motivation for parents to help children lead a healthy lifestyle.”
So how can parents help their children stay healthy? Here are a few suggestions:
- Buy healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables and lean meats, and stay away from fast food and fruit juices, which are packed with sugar and provide little dietary benefit.
- Limit screen time, including television, computer, phone and video game time. Encourage outdoor activities that get your kids' blood pumping and brains active.
- Make healthy choices easy by keeping healthy snacks on hand. Bowls of fruit don’t just look nice on your table—they’re easy to grab for a quick bite.
- Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.” Teach your child how different foods affect the body (protein gives you energy for sports, fruits and veggies give your body nutrients it needs to grow) so they understand why they're important.
- Praise healthy choices instead of reprimanding poor ones.
- Don’t use food as a reward. This can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food later in life. Instead offer physical rewards, like hugs, verbal affirmations or a trip to the park.
- Eat dinner at the table together. Research has shown that children who eat dinner with their families tend to be healthier, get better grades and have a lower risk of high-risk teenage behaviors like smoking, drinking and getting in trouble at school.
- Lead by example. Leading a healthy lifestyle yourself is the best way to raise healthy kids.
Learn more great ways to set your child up for success with healthy living and eating.