February marks American Heart Month, so let’s take a look at how we can address kids’ heart health. It’s commonly understood that heart disease is the leading cause of death nationally for both men and women (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 1999-2013). We’ve known for a long time that heart disease—along with diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and some cancers—is considered to be an obesity-related health issue. The current rate of adult obesity in New York is 27%, which has been steadily rising (with the exception of a slight decline in 2011-2012) since 1990 when it was 9.3%. (The State of Obesity, 2015).
In young children, however, we’re seeing signs of progress. The CDC released a report in 2013 that showed that, among 2-to 4-year olds from low-income families, there was a statistically significant decline in obesity rates between 2008-2011(14.6% to 14.3%). We’ve also seen rates decrease among teens. Great news, right?! It most certainly is, because we know that the majority of cases of heart disease don’t just develop overnight in adulthood…..
….they begin in childhood. The Bogalusa Heart Study began in 1972 when a pediatric cardiologist from Bogalusa, Louisiana, thought it prudent to study the precursors of adult cardiovascular diseases. He started researching the behavioral and biologic risk factors of cardiovascular disease in youth and continued to follow them for many years. The major findings?
- Observations clearly show that the major causes of heart-related diseases begin in childhood, with documented anatomic changes occurring as early as 5 to 8 years of age.
- Autopsy studies show signs of atherosclerotic lesions in the aorta and coronary vessels, as well as in the vasculature of other organs, indicating atherosclerosis and hypertension begin early in life.
- Environmental factors (diet, exercise and cigarette smoking) are significant and influence abnormally elevated cholesterol levels, hypertension, and obesity. As such, children should be introduced to healthy lifestyles as early as possible.
So, what can parents, teachers and our greater society do to make our kids more heart healthy? The revamp of the federal school meal programs under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a step in the right direction. The “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards include:
- more fruits and veggies, whole grains, leaner proteins, and low-fat dairy products.
- lower levels of fat, sugar and sodium in foods and beverages along with more nutritionally dense choices.
- options to vary foods among elementary, middle and high school age groups.
- restrictions on fundraisers sold during the school day (e.g. candy bars, bake sales, etc.).
- requirements that all foods/beverages sold in schools meet the same dietary guidelines, whether from the lunch line, snack shacks or vending machines.
Teachers can take these standards a step further and encourage parents to send their kids to school with healthy snacks. Whether it’s snack time, birthday parties or classroom celebrations of any kind, shifting the focus away from overly-processed, high-fat, sugary foods to “real” food (e.g. fresh fruits and veggies, yogurt parfaits, whole grain tortilla chips and salsa, etc.) will reset kids’ palates so that they actually prefer the taste of healthier foods. Even better, get them moving! Encourage students to choose physical activity-based activities for celebrations, like extra recess time or a game in the gym. Allow students to choose fun items from a “party cart” (e.g. birthday tiara, slinkies, feather boas, crafts, etc.) or allow them special privileges (e.g. choice of story to be read, first in line for lunch, etc.). Suggest that student groups or the school as a whole focus on non-food fundraising.
These same practices apply at home. Parents can set limits on the amount and types of foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value that are kept in the house, encourage more physical activity outdoors, and limit screen time for their kids. Check out The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Pinterest and The ASHA Leader Blog for exceptionally fun and creative ideas! And, remember that even these seemingly small steps are steps in the right direction for their heart health.
Program Coordinator, School Wellness