Feb 1, 2023, 9:55:41 PM CST Apr 1, 2024, 12:53:02 PM CDT

Is a heart-healthy diet important for children?

Developing healthy eating habits as a kid will support heart health into adulthood, but what does a heart-healthy diet include? A cardiologist and a registered dietitian share tips with parents.

Hands are made into a heart while showing fruits and vegetables Hands are made into a heart while showing fruits and vegetables

Heart-healthy habits are important for kids and adults of all ages. They help prevent disease and make sure kids are feeling their best. The key to these habits is establishing and maintaining healthy eating patterns at an early age.

"Incorporating heart-healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle at a young age is essential to promote overall health, reduce risk of chronic disease and meet nutrient needs," says Sarah Dundas, a registered dietitian at Children's Health℠. "By establishing healthy eating during childhood, we can lower the risk of children becoming overweight or obese and decrease cholesterol, which are contributing factors to cardiovascular disease later in life."

According to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, about 40% of children and adolescents are overweight or have obesity, and the rate of obesity increases throughout childhood and adolescence. Further, 7% of children and adolescents have high total cholesterol (more than 200 mg/dL), and nearly 4% of adolescents have hypertension.

"A heart-healthy diet, along with regular exercise, promotes long-term heart health. Short-term benefits include improvement in attitude and energy level," says Shannon Blalock, M.D., a cardiologist with Pediatric Heart Specialists, a Children's Health Care Network Partner.

What are heart-healthy foods for kids?

Foods that support heart health are often similar for children and adults. These types of foods include:

  • Vegetables such as broccoli or spinach: If you're eating out, consider vegetables as a healthy side instead of french fries. If you're using canned vegetables, rinse them to lower sodium
  • Fruits like apples, pears or canned peaches in water: Avoid canned fruit packed in heavy syrup and limit juice intake.
  • Whole grains, including brown rice and oats
  • Skim or low-fat dairies, like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese
  • Proteins such as fish, beans and lentils: Remove the skin from chicken and other meats before eating.

When preparing food, avoid solid fats like butter or lard during food preparation and limit the use of high-calorie or cream-based sauces. Also, consider healthier cooking methods like roasting, baking, poaching, grilling, sauteing and steaming.

In addition, limit foods and beverages high in sugar, saturated fat and sodium. Save these foods for special occasions or treats.

How to build heart-healthy eating habits for children

How your child eats can be as important as what they eat, and those habits start early. Dundas suggests eating as a family as often as possible at mealtimes to promote social interaction and demonstrate appropriate eating behaviors for your children.

As you introduce infants and toddlers to new foods, encourage them to try a variety of foods from all food groups. "When flavors, colors and textures are new, it may take kids up to 10 attempts to accept a new food," says Dundas. "While we know that the 'toddler diet' can be limiting, we can always do our part as parents to encourage acceptance of new healthy foods."

When building your child's plate, use half the plate's real estate for fruits and vegetables and leave the rest for grains and protein. If your child asks for seconds, start with another serving of vegetables. For more information on building a plate, visit MyPlate.gov.

Dundas and Dr. Blalock also recommend teaching children what it means to be full. "Parents can incorporate responsive feeding when children are as young as six months old," says Dundas. "This feeding style teaches children to respond to hunger or fullness cues."

"It's so important not to train kids to overeat," says Dr. Blalock. "Teach them to listen to their body and hunger signals and hear when they feel full. Have them check in with their bodies as they're eating."

How can parents support their kids' heart health?

As a parent, you can play an important role in building healthy behaviors that will support your child for life. You can start by setting a good example for your family, including eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly. Other tips include:

  • Making heart-healthy choices at the grocery store and keeping healthy snacks at home
  • Teaching other caregivers about heart-healthy food choices
  • Having dedicated mealtimes and encouraging age-appropriate portions sizes
  • Limiting snacking during leisure or screen time
  • Involving children in meal planning
  • Including vegetables in at least two of three meals

"Healthy does not have to be complicated," says Dr. Blalock. "Involve your child in choosing activities and meals. Try going on walks, practicing a new sport or cooking a healthy recipe together. Most importantly, try to make it fun."

What are some heart-healthy meal and snack ideas for kids?

When it comes to heart-healthy meals the whole family can enjoy, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans offers meal ideas, including:

  • Banana-walnut overnight oats: Mix raw oats, low-fat plain Greek yogurt, low-fat milk and half a banana and refrigerate overnight. Top with chopped walnuts and honey.
  • Chicken burrito bowl: Layer brown rice, lettuce, low-sodium black beans, grilled chicken, grilled vegetables, avocado, fresh salsa, reduced-fat cheese and jalapenos in a bowl.
  • Oven-roasted tilapia and vegetables with pasta: Add cooked tilapia, broccoli, carrots and summer squash to cooked pasta. Add a tablespoon of garlic-herb oil and combine.

For healthy after-school snacks, you could also consider the following:

  • Fruit kabobs with lite Cool Whip
  • Frozen grapes or berries
  • Apple slices with peanut butter
  • Raw vegetables dipped in low-fat ranch or hummus
  • Build-your-own trail mix with Cheerios, almonds and dried fruit
  • Pickles wrapped in low-fat cream cheese and freshly sliced deli meat
  • String cheese paired with whole or canned fruit
  • Whole grain toast with smashed avocado
  • White cheddar rice and corn puffs or low-fat popcorn
  • Steamed edamame with a spicy seasoning
  • Caprese snack bowl with grape tomatoes, mozzarella, chopped cucumber and a dash of olive oil
  • Hard-boiled egg with avocado

Learn more about building habits

Want to learn more about healthier habits for your family? Read more about pediatric weight management programs, including Get Up & Go, COACH, bariatrics and nutrition clinics.

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