Every parent wants the best for their child, especially when it comes to their heart. Did you know that diet plays a major role in heart health? Certain foods can influence blood pressure, triglycerides (fats in the blood), cholesterol levels and inflammation. All of these are risk factors for heart disease. The good news is that you can take charge of your child’s heart health by developing habits that will lead to long term healthy heart benefits later in life.
Our in-house Dietitians Anna and Alex, share their 6 ‘healthy heart tips’:
1. Eat Plenty of Fibre
You’ve probably heard that fibre is important, yet many children and adults aren’t getting enough in their diet. Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that humans are unable to digest. It is found in the plants we eat – fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Fibre helps to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. It, therefore, plays a significant role in the prevention of heart disease. Foods high in soluble fibre, such as oats, have proven particularly beneficial in lowering total cholesterol levels.
Oats contain high amounts of soluble fibre called beta glucan. This forms a gel inside the intestines. Beta glucan is known to reduce blood cholesterol, however, how it does this has not been established. Researchers suggest that the thick gel reduces the absorption of cholesterol from our diet and prevents the reuptake of bile acids, which are essential for digestion. Without reuptake, the body needs to make more bile salts by usual circulating cholesterol. This results in reduced blood cholesterol.
2. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids might be a health buzzword but they actually have an important role in maintaining heart health. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the healthy types of fats. When eaten, instead of saturated fats, they have a positive effect on heart health. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. One of the best sources is fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon.
The human body cannot produce omega fatty acids, so it’s important you and your child are eating sources in your diet. Aside from fish, the only other sources include flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts.
3. Reduce Unhealthy Fats
Saturated fat can be found in the visible fat on meat, in dairy foods and processed foods (including biscuits, chips and pastries) and in palm oil, vegetable oil, coconut oil and butter.
Though dairy products contain saturated fats, research has found they might actually lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. This is likely due to the other nutrients they also contain. It is recommended that children under the age of 2 have full cream dairy or breastmilk.
Saturated fats should be limited in your child’s diet. High intake of foods containing saturated fat can contribute to high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and risk of heart disease later in life.
4. Eat Plenty of Red Fruits and Vegetables
Lycopene is the predominant pigment found in red coloured fruits and vegetables. Lycopene is a power antioxidant that has been associated with heart health. The benefits of lycopene can be enjoyed in both raw and cooked fruits and vegetables as well as fresh, frozen or canned sources.
Red fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin C and folate. They’re also a source of flavonoids, which reduce inflammation and have antioxidant properties. Inflammation and oxidative stress are risk factors for heart disease. So, encouraging your child to consume foods high in anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants is an effective way to improve their heart health!
5. Watch Added Sugars
Added sugars are those added, by manufacturers or you, to foods and drinks to make them taste sweeter. Sugars come in many forms, including brown sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, raw sugar and ingredients ending in “-ose”.
The World Health Organizations recommends a maximum of 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for children aged 2-18 years. With the average child in Australia eating and drinking more added sugar than they should, it’s important to pay attention to how much your child is consuming.
The way in which added sugar impacts heart health is not completely understood, though it appears to have a number of indirect connections. The liver is responsible for metabolizing sugar in the body, so a diet that is high in added sugars from a young age could overload the liver down the track. This can lead to an accumulation of fat and result in fatty liver disease, a contributor to diabetes, which raises heart disease risk. In addition, high consumption of added sugars over time can increase blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart disease.
6. Talk About the Importance of Heart Health
Don’t forget to talk about the benefits of heart healthy foods with your child! Studies have shown that clearly communicating a food’s nutrition benefits to children through affirming statements will help them to make healthy food decisions on their own. Of course, this doesn’t mean talking about “reducing their risk of heart disease”, but rather having age appropriate conversations and encouraging them to eat nutritious food to ensure they grow up to be healthy and strong!
If you need support or advice regarding your child’s diet, please speak with your Campus Director. Our dedicated in-house Health team are now supporting families in a home environment with phone, email and video consultations through our new Oac Health@Home program!
For information on our Dietitian-designed menu offerings at Only About Children see our Nutrition page.