Eating habits for a healthy heart must start early, says AHA

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Children, Nutrition

Protecting the heart through healthy eating starts in earliest
childhood, says the American Heart Association which released its
new dietary recommendations for children and adolescents this week,
an initiative that coincides with the USDA's launch of MyPyramid
For Kids.

The new recommendations, the first released by the association since 1982, are published on the association's website and in its journal, Circulation. They draw attention to evidence that atherosclerosis begins at a young age, and that those who follow a poor diet and take too little exercise may already have build up of plaque in the arteries by adolescence. Eventually, this plaque can reduce blood flow through the arteries. If they rupture, blood clots can form, which can block the flow of blood to the heart and cause a heart attack. Although aimed at health care providers, much of the message is that parents can have more of an impact on their children's diets by setting a good example themselves."You can't change a child's genes, but many risk factors never have to occur," said Barbara Dennison, MD, co-chair of the writing committee and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. For children aged two years and above, the key recommendations are that dietary calories are balanced with physical activity to maintain normal growth; vegetables and fruits are eaten daily, with a limit on juice; vegetables oils and margarines low in saturated fat are used instead of butter; whole grain breads and cereals are eaten in place of refined grains; intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods in reduced; non-fat or low-fat dairy products are eaten daily; more fish, especially oily fish broiled or baked, is eaten; salt intake is reduced, including that from processed foods. Gidding explained that the concept of discretionary calories is an important one. It refers to the additional calories consumed to meet energy needs and for normal growth, once nutritional requirements have been met. "The intent is not to count calories, but to be aware that children who are inactive need to eat nutrient-dense foods - those with little added sugar or fat - to avoid excess calories." For the first time, however, new dietary guidelines go further back before the age of two, suggesting that ideally infants are breast-fed for the first six months, and that breastfeeding should continue throughout the first year, as solids are introduced. They warn against overfeeding infants, and that foods that contain calories without any nutritional benefit be avoided. Healthy foods should be introduced repeatedly - even if they are refused at first, and juice should not be introduced for the first six months, and then no more than 4 to 6 oz a day should be given. "Foods given to babies today are less nutritious than 10 or 20 years ago," said Samuel Gidding, MD, chair of the writing committee and professor of pediatric cardiology at Jefferson Medical College. "By 19 months of age, on any given day, one-third of toddlers eat no fruit, and french fries are the most commonly consumed vegetable." To an extent, the problem may lie with marketing: "In the past, children's foods were thought to be those that promoted growth and contained lots of nutrition. Now, children's foods are sweets, snacks, and meals that are high in calories but have little nutritional value. Children's food should be nutritional to support optimal growth and development," added Gidding. As for exercise, 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day is recommended - and that time in front of computer games and TV be limited. With its MyPyramid for Kids, however, the USDA is trying to tap into children's love of computer games, by presenting its message through an interactive computer game called MyPyramid Blast Off, whereby children must 'fuel' a rocket by making healthy diet and exercise choices. It also consists of a new graphic symbol for kids and lesson plans for grades one to six. MyPyramid for Kids has been met with praise from certain sectors of the food industry. Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy for the Food Products Association said: "MyPyramid for Kids can help motivate children to put sound dietary messages into daily practice. "Beginning nutrition education in early childhood is an important part of helping to ensure that children will achieve healthful lifestyles. MyPyramid for Kids will help facilitate this early education by providing teachers with valuable instructional aids." Elizabeth Pivonka, president of Produce for Better Health Foundation said the initiative is a positive step toward promoting children's health and fighting childhood obesity, but warned that for it to succeed it must "be met with strong action by government and education leaders to increase funding for effective health and physical education campaigns, step up efforts to increase availability of fruits and vegetables in schools and limit the barrage of junk food advertising targeting children." The Center for Science in the Public Interest was scathing about it, however: "MyPyramid for Kids doesn't dare to discourage children from consuming so much soda, fast food, candy, and other junk foods," said executive director Michael Jacobson. "Even if MyPyramid for Kids were terrific, there's no strategy to put materials in every classroom in America - they're actually only making them available upon request. It's as if they've asked [for] a response to the obesity epidemic." External links to companies or organizations mentioned in thisstory: American Heart Association USDA

Related topics: Cardiovascular health

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