February is American Heart Month! Parents can do a lot to help reduce their child’s risks of heart disease and help them develop habits that can last a lifetime. Although you and your pediatrician are the best authorities on your child’s health, the following are some general guidelines that can help you raise heart-healthy kids:
Water – Water is vital for bodily functions and is the best way to quench thirst. Children should drink water throughout the day and drink additional water during physical activities or sports. Buy a portable, reusable bottle that can be regularly filled for on-the- go trips. Add lemons, oranges or other fruits for added flavor.
Vegetables and Fruits – Your child’s doctor will indicate how many servings of fruits and vegetables they should be eating for their age group and activity level. As a general rule, each meal should contain at least one fruit or vegetable. Parents can get creative by adding fruits and vegetables to just about everything, including cereal, toast, pancakes, omelets, yogurt, sauces, lean meats, beans and soups. In general, a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, heart-healthy fats, fatty fish, lean meats, chicken and turkey is best for optimum heart health.
Treats – Food should be used for nutrition. Vitamins and minerals provide the fuel that children need to function. Rich desserts, cookies, cakes, candy and sodas should only be eaten in moderation and as occasional treats.
Snacks – Prepare a bag of heart-healthy snacks to eat on-the go, such as low-fat granola bars, trail mix, nuts, carrots, celery, bananas, fresh fruits, low-fat cheese, yogurt, low-fat chocolate milk and dark chocolate.
Get Kids Cooking – Children who learn to prepare healthy meals will be less likely to overindulge once they understand what they are eating.
Food Labels – Teach kids how to properly read food labels and read them together when preparing food or shopping. Once kids understand what they are eating, they are less likely to want sugary, fatty, and high-calorie foods.
Family Involvement – Heart-healthy habits should be a family matter that will help motivate everyone to make and keep healthier choices. Get others, such as caretakers and other family members, involved if they are also caring for your children.
School Lunches – Find out what your children are eating at school. When possible, review their menu options and help them choose the most appropriate, nutritious foods. When packing their lunch, pack the most nutritious foods you have available.
Exercise – Children need at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day and 60 minutes is ideal. Increments of 10 or 15 minutes of exercise at a time is fine. Exercise builds muscle, powers the brain, increases the amount of healthy cholesterol, lowers blood pressure and helps the body control stress.
Smoking – Teens who smoke have a higher chance of getting cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, bronchitis and pneumonia. More immediately, teens can experience malnutrition and asthma. Talk to your children early on about the dangers of smoking so they won’t start.
Sleep – Sleep plays an important part in heart health. Lack of sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure. The amount of sleep that your child needs depends on their age, make sure that they start developing good sleep patterns now.
When visiting your child’s physician, any questions or concerns you may have regarding your child’s weight or health habits should be brought up. These topics may be sensitive or uncomfortable and their doctor may not bring it up themselves. Once your child has been thoroughly evaluated, any actions that need to be taken should be followed-up as indicated.