As Joseph Marek and his wife, Kathy, have raised their four children, they've been careful to instill good eating habits right from the beginning. "The origin of heart disease starts in childhood," he says. "And our dietary habits start when we're kids. We eat what we're exposed to when we're children." Marek should know. He's a cardiologist with Midwest Heart Specialists and medical director of Young Hearts for Life Cardiac Screening Program.
New guidelines, issued in November by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend first testing a child's cholesterol level between age 9 and 11. Children with elevated levels should begin lifestyle changes.
Most people know heart-healthy eating is about reducing saturated and trans fats by cutting back on fatty meats, sausages and hot dogs, fried foods and full fat dairy. But did you know by including certain foods you can improve the effectiveness of a low-fat diet?
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found adding a portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods to an otherwise heart-healthy diet reduced the subjects' LDL cholesterol by about 13 percent. Those who simply lowered their saturated and trans fat intake lowered their LDL by 3 percent.
Let's take a look at a few child-friendly foods that provide heart benefits to the entire family.
1) Beans. These protein rich vegetables are an excellent source of dietary fiber that keeps cholesterol low. If you're thinking there's no way your offspring will ever eat whole beans, consider these forms: hummus with pita bread or crackers or as a substitute for mayo on sandwiches, black bean dip or even fat-free "refried" beans as a side.
2) Salmon. Rich in omega-3 fats, this low-mercury fish can be microwaved, baked or grilled. Save money by stocking up on the canned variety when it's on sale and make salmon salad instead of tuna. Canned salmon is almost always wild caught.
3) Popcorn. Three cups of popped popcorn is a serving of whole grain and a tasty snack. It's pennies per serving if you pop your own using a stovetop popper and a little heart healthy oil like canola or even olive oil. To avoid choking, children should be at least 4 before they are allowed to eat it, according to a policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
4) Nuts. While walnuts are often touted as being most beneficial for heart health, the FDA has approved health claims for hazelnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. Nut skins are where the greatest amount of beneficial phenols reside. Don't give nuts to very young children to avoid choking.
5) Oats. A steaming bowl of old-fashioned oatmeal with a bit of brown sugar and butter on a cold winter's morning hits the spot and keeps arteries clean, too. Or turn oats into flour by whirling them in the blender and adding to meatballs, meatloaf, stuffed peppers and baked goods like quick breads and cookies.
6) Soy protein. Look for soy with minimal processing. For example, cubes of tofu are soothing to a teething child and easy to eat. Fresh or frozen edamame that are steamed are fun for kids to snack on, or you can add them to stir-fry.
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a nutritionist living in Naperville.
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