Give Your Children a Healthy Start

About 31 percent of children aged 2-19 in the United States (that’s almost 24 million) are overweight. Children who are overweight have a higher risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes—all of which increase the chances that they’ll have cardiovascular diseases as adults. The risk factors for children are the same as the ones for adults:

  • Being overweight
  • Having a family history of cardiovascular disease
  • Having a congenital heart condition (meaning the child was born with it)
  • Being African American
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Having diabetes
  • Eating an unhealthy diet

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 60 percent of overweight children aged 5 to 17 years, have at least one of the above risk factors, while 25 percent of overweight children have two or more.

Of course, you can’t do anything about some of the risk factors (such as family history and ethnic background). But most of the others can be minimized or prevented by changing behavior. Because our children pay close attention to what we say and do (it may not always seem like it, but they really do), the best way to help them prevent cardiovascular disease is to set a good example. Ideally, you’d start teaching your children the basics when they’re very young, but it’s never too late to start.

Here are some important steps you can take to help your children live a healthier and longer life:

  • Encourage them to eat a healthy diet. This means:
  • Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains instead of processed ones
  • Lean proteins (meat, poultry, fish, beans, and lentils) instead of Fatty ones
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products (milk and cheesef
  • Reduce sodium (Read the ingredient panel on food packages.)
  • Drink water instead of soda and juice
  • Limit fast foods, snacks, and desserts
  • Keep portion sizes reasonable and don’t overeat. (See My Plate below.)
  • Eat slowly. This gives children a better chance of noticing when they’re full. Also, discourage eating
  • in front of the TV as this may make it hard to pay attention to feelings of fullness and may lead to overeating. Have your kids help with the shopping and cooking.
  • Encourage them to get plenty of exercise. Children should get an hour of physical activity every day.
  • Make sure your children don’t smoke and that no one who lives in your house does.

Remember, you are your children’s most important teacher. So if you’re overweight, eat poorly, don’t get enough exercise, smoke, and/or drink too much alcohol, now’s the time to make some changes. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your kids. There’s some fascinating research which indicates that fathers have a 17 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than married men without children. One possible explanation is that whatever it is that increases men’s cardiovascular disease risk may also prevent them from having children. But a more interesting theory is that fathers take better care of themselves—in part because they’re changing their own behavior to set a good example for their children, and in part because having children has given their life more meaning and they want to be around as long as possible to enjoy it