Heart disease is the number one cause of death in North America, but beginning a heart-healthy diet at an early age can prevent it from happening. Kids form eating habits that will last their lifetime, so it is up to parents to help shape this right from the start.
The two areas to focus on are fibre and fat, ensuring they get enough of the first and the right kinds of the latter. Kids need the following amounts of fibre every day:
1–3 years 19 g
4–8 years 25 g
Males 9–13 years 31 g
Males 14–18 years 38 g
Females 9–18 years 26 g
To ensure fibre needs are met, include high-fibre fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds every day. Breakfast is a prime opportunity to maximize fibre intake. Fibre is key for heart health and also helps food move more slowly through the digestive tract. This keeps kids (and adults for that matter) feeling full until break time and stabilizes blood sugars, creating prime learning conditions.
For a tasty breakfast that meets more than half of most kids’ fibre needs, try the following:
• A real fruit smoothie made with ½ cup blueberries and ½ avocado plus plain yogurt and milk or ½ cup juice. The avocado makes it taste like ice cream and it contains almost 8 grams of fibre.
• Extras like ground flax or chia seeds added to smoothies (or cereals) can boost the fibre even faster, offering 2–4 grams per tablespoon.
• On the side, add a piece of sprouted grain bread with 1 tablespoon of nut butter for another 7 grams of fibre.
Kids need healthy fats to grow properly and maximize brain development. Saturated fat should be kept to a minimum in everyone’s diet, so limit red meats to twice a week and choose lower fat cheeses with less than 20% milk fat (m.f.); mozzarella, feta, ricotta and cottage cheese are all healthier cheese options. However, for most kids, it is still recommended to include whole milk and yogurt—rather than lower-fat varieties—and include other healthy fat sources daily like extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocados and fish.
The other nutrient to consider in your family’s diet is sodium. Try to prevent your children from developing a taste for heavily salted foods and a high intake of them, which could put them at risk for high blood pressure. Choose low-sodium crackers, soups, bread products, dips and sauces and unsalted nuts, seeds and nut butters. Replace the salt shaker on the table with fresh lemon or lime and use more herbs and spices to flavour foods.
Finally, keep them moving! Physical activity is the key for the maintenance of a healthy weight and contributes to a healthy heart. Lack of physical activity is the major culprit for the rise in childhood obesity. Encourage exercise and be sure your kids are active for at least 60 minutes a day by limiting screen time to maximum one hour a day, walking them to school or going for a family walk after dinner. Get them involved in choosing a favourite sport or activity—even something as simple as a jump rope or a mini-trampoline.
By acting as a role model and instilling in your children hearthealthy values, you’ll notice countless benefits for you and your entire family.
If you’re in the market for more heart-healthy habits to pass onto your youngsters, email Nicole Fetterly, RD, one of Choices’ Dietitians. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.