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When we think about eating or exercise for heart health, our first thought usually isn't about kids' health. On the contrary — many times we see childhood as a time of indulgence. Ice cream after a soccer game, pizza and a root beer float on the side, and let's not forget about Halloween.
"I'm a working mom with two kids — I get it. I understand the desire to indulge" says UW Health pediatric cardiologist Amy Peterson, MD. "But the reality is that as parents one of our most important jobs is to help our kids grow to be healthy adults."
While it can be hard to tell Grandma that cookies may not be the best snack choice, Dr. Peterson comments that balance and moderation even from a young age are important. After all, high blood pressure or even heart disease doesn't just appear one day after the age of 40. It builds over time, the result of our lifestyle and health habits.
"Science tells us very clearly — we have studies dating from the 1960s - that the basis of heart disease starts young. Plaque can be seen in children as young as eight years old," Peterson says. "Even in healthy kids the plaque starts to show up."
The reality is that the habits we instill in kids will often follow into adulthood. So while Grandma may not think indulging is a bad thing — it does play a role. "There's a perception that kids are immune to the effects of a high fat diet — and that it's just "baby weight," Peterson says. "But the majority don't. Obese kids often grow up to be obese adults."
The hard part for some parents — and Peterson admits one of the more difficult conversations she has with patient families — is that the adults have to lead by example. If we're choosing soda over milk or water, kids take note. And while we can influence some choices while kids are young, they quickly reach an age where it's all up to them.
"As children grow, our direct influence over what they eat or drink diminishes. We have to instill those principles of balance and moderation from a young age so they are able to make better choices when they're on their own," comments Peterson.
Perception is also a challenge, she notes. Research has shown that kids aren't as active as we think (neither are adults for that matter). We tend to overestimate how hard we work during exercise, or how active we are. And just because kids are, well, kids doesn't mean they are out playing and running for hours at a time. As UW Health's Pediatric Fitness Clinic has found in their research — even in summer when we would think kids are constantly on the go, their activity levels actually go down, not up. So what can parents do?
Tips for helping kids' heart health
Make healthy eating and exercise normal. "Eating a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables should be the norm. And being active should just be something you do on a daily basis," she says. It's not that families should avoid treats, just ensure they're part of an overall balanced diet.
Get your child's cholesterol screened between 9 and 11 years of age and again between 17 and 21.
Talk about your own family health history. If high blood pressure or high cholesterol run in the family, talk with your child's physician so they are aware. For teens and young adults it can be helpful for them to know and understand the family's health history so they can better manage their own health. Teach kids to become advocates for their own health.
Encourage kids and teens to ask questions during wellness visits and bring up any concerns. Most important, encourage them to be honest. Physicians aren't judging, but knowing if someone smokes or doesn't get any exercise are important pieces of information as they look to help people manage their health.
Encourage children to listen to their bodies — eat when hungry and stop when full. "Children are born with a remarkable ability to listen to the direction of their bodies, but we actually teach them to ignore it over time. Scheduled mealtimes, eating when bored, telling them to clean their plates — there are a number of ways we inadvertently teach kids to stop listening but it's important they follow their internal cues," says Peterson.
Parents need to take care of themselves. "Parents put a lot of focus on their children's health and wellbeing, but ignore their own. But in this case, being a good role model benefits not only your kids — but your own health," she shares.