We all want to raise heart-healthy children in order for them to thrive throughout their whole lives. Eating well and routine physical fitness are key factors for a strong heart.
“Heart-healthy children grow up to be heart-healthy adults,” says Dr. Richard A. Lewis, a cardiologist and the medical director of the Mary Washington Health Alliance. “The opposite is also very true.”
A sedentary lifestyle combined with poor food choices can lead to obesity in children. Obese children often remain so as adults, which can lead to a host of other health problems, including the development of diabetes.
“Parents are their children’s best role models,” notes Lewis. “Teaching your children at a young age to eat healthy and exercise will result in them thinking that it is just normal behavior.”
When it comes to diet, families should avoid soda and processed foods. Instead, fill your plate with fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains.
“Fruits have natural sugars, so kids don’t need the added sugar,” says Lewis. “The more color the better. Darker colors are better for you.”
Think broccoli and other greens as well as blueberries. One of the exceptions to the dark color rule is cauliflower, a white vegetable that is considered one of the “superfoods.” Superfoods have a plethora of nutritional and health benefits. Other superfoods include kale, spinach, beets, strawberries, watermelon, pumpkin, cranberries, apples, nuts, beans, oatmeal, quinoa, ginger, green tea and Greek yogurt. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy and good for you as fresh, and can be used to make smoothies.
“It’s also about portion control and making small changes like choosing skim milk instead of whole milk,” Lewis says.
Lewis recommends families go grocery shopping together.
“Teach your children how to read labels and see just how much sugar or carbohydrates are in a food,” he says.
Local pediatrician Dr. Nimali Fernando, also known as “Dr. Yum,” provides a list of her favorite heart-healthy foods and recipes on her website, www.doctoryum.org. Lewis suggests visiting the website for meal ideas.
Lewis also encourages families to get fit together.
“Organize family activities around exercise,” he advises. “Get your kids off their computer screens and cell phones.”
Head outside whenever the weather permits. A family bike ride, a hike, an after-dinner walk or a quick trip to the playground are all good options.
“You want to avoid being sedentary for more than an hour,” he says. “It is very important to keep moving.”
In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, other ways to stay heart healthy include avoiding smoking and tobacco products and getting regular checkups from your doctor.
“These things aren’t difficult, and they are good habits,” Lewis says. “Your children will feel better, they’ll sleep better and they’ll do better in school.”