Childhood is the healthiest time in a person’s life, but the American Heart Association (AHA) is warning in a statement that, in the United States, less than 1% of children meet the organization’s definition of ideal cardiovascular health. [1]

Statement author Dr. Julia Steinberger said:

“A primary reason for so few children having ideal cardiovascular health is poor nutrition.

Children are eating high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and not eating enough healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, fish and other foods strongly associated with good heart health and a healthy body weight.”

The Scope of the Problem

unhealthy kid

An analysis of 2007-08 federal government survey results revealed that approximately 91% of American children did not have healthy diets. Kids between the ages of 2 and 19 get the majority of their calories from simple carbohydrates, such as sugary drinks and desserts.

Read: Slashing Sugar Makes Kids Healthier in Just 10 Days

Kids aren’t getting enough exercise, either. Just half of boys and about 1/3 of girls ages 6 to 11 got the recommended 60 minutes or more a day of exercise. Among teens ages 16 to 19, just 10% of boys and 5% of girls got enough physical activity.

Predictably, the overload of calories and lack of exercise is making youngsters fatter – about 10% of children ages 2 to 5 were found to be obese, compared to between 19% and 27% of 12- to 19-year-olds.

About 1/3 of the older kids had tried a cigarette. [2]

Steinberger, commenting on obesity among kids over the past decade, said:

“There are indications that the rate of obesity has plateaued in the sense that the number of newly diagnosed children with obesity has somewhat plateaued. However, unfortunately, what has emerged is that the rate of diagnosis of children with severe obesity, with extreme obesity, has been on the upsurge.”

Fortunately, the vast majority of kids had ideal blood pressure, and most had ideal cholesterol and blood sugar levels, though not as good as blood pressure levels. [1]

Health Today, Gone Tomorrow

The study, published August 11 in the journal Circulationsuggests that the poor lifestyle habits that children are adopting now are setting them up for serious, even life-threatening health struggles as they get older.

Steinberger said the findings of the survey show that instead “of taking a wait-and-see approach by treating disease later in adulthood, we should help children maintain the standards of ideal cardiovascular health that most children are born with.”

She added:

“It’s much harder to turn back the clock.” [2]

Starting Kids off on the Right Foot

In order for a youngster to have ideal cardiovascular health, they need to have a healthy body weight; and healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar (glucose) levels. [1]

Let’s take a look at the lifestyle factors that make that possible, and how you can help your child achieve healthy goals.

Healthy Diet

According to the Mayo Clinic, kids should be consuming the following diet:

  • Protein. Choose seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Fruits. Kids should be eating fresh fruit and avoiding fruit juice when possible. If you do give your child fruit juice, make sure it’s 100% juice without added sugars, and limit his or her servings. If the only option is canned fruit, make sure it’s light or packed in its own juice. Dried fruit is a healthy, high-fiber choice, but keep in mind that 1.5 cups counts as 1 cup-equivalent of fresh fruit.
  • Vegetables. Offer dark green, and red and orange veggies; beans and peas; starchy and others, each week. If you serve canned or frozen vegetables, look for lower-sodium varieties.
  • Grains. Choose whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, or brown or wild rice. Limit refined grains.
  • Dairy. The Mayo Clinic recommends fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages. However, some kids are allergic to soy, and low-fat foods are significantly higher in sugar than whole fat foods, so do a little research for yourself, and check with your family doctor about what is best for your child.

Nutritional Guidelines for Kids

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Keep in mind that the lining used in canned foods often contain BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical known to contribute to obesity.

Exercise

Children should be getting at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Is your child a video game fanatic? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the game Pokemon Go encourages kids to play outside, and may lead to very real health benefits. [3]

Dr. Margaret McCartney wrote in the BMJ that despite some of the stories we hear in the news about weird/creepy Pokemon Go-playing experiences, a lot of good things are coming from the game, too, such as the “heart attacks prevented through more exercise, or the vitamin D deficiency that geeks have avoided, blinking in the sunlight while catching a Pikachu monster.”

Say “No” to Smoking

People who smoke usually pick up the habit in their teen years. As a parent, you don’t always have a say in what happens at school or when your child goes out with his or her friends, but you can still be an effective role model.

I’ll be blunt: if you smoke, quitIf your child smokes, talk to him about how dangerous it is, and how you can help him beat the addiction.

Steinberger said:

“Kids are born with ideal health. So if we could make the effort to improve some of these elements, especially the diet and physical activity, I think we would have a much healthier young adult and adult population.” [1]

Sources:

[1] U.S. News & World Report

[2] HealthDay

[3] Mayo Clinic

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About Julie Fidler:
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.