Eat Now, Pay Later

You are what you eat.”

What your children eat at a young age can have a significant impact on their health in the future. As parents, we have an opportunity to help our children develop healthy eating habits that can help them be healthy adults. Diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis and risks for cancer and other adult diseases may all start in childhood.

Nearly one in four children are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. Children are consuming more calories than they are expending, leading to excess weight gain. Childhood obesity is a rising epidemic that has been associated with risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) and orthopedic complications.

As parents we can help our children to have lifelong healthy eating habits to help prevent obesity. Family meals are the first step to monitor a child’s diet. Children should have three meals a day with one or two healthy snacks. Vegetables and fruits should be the majority of a child’s diet with a least five servings a day. Avoid fast food – although it’s convenient, it’s high in calories and low in nutrients. Reducing TV watching and encouraging at least one hour of daily physical activity also will help.

Level Out Cholesterol
Hyperlipidemia, or high cholesterol levels, are more frequent in obese children. Cholesterol plaques can cause hardening of the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis, and this is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Lifetime dietary habits and genetics affect cholesterol levels and a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends limiting dietary fat intake to 25-35 percent of calories for children older than 4 years of age. Children ages 2-4 should have between 30 and 35 percent of their calories from fat. Most fats should be unsaturated, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils. Also, remember to switch to lowfat milk after 2 years of age.

Don’t Curb Calcium
Up to 85 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys do not get the amount of calcium they need. Calcium is one of the key building blocks for strong and healthy bones. If calcium levels in the blood are low, then the body takes calcium from the bones, which can lead to osteoporosis, increasing the risk of fractures. The way to prevent osteoporosis is to have an adequate amount of calcium intake each day.

It is recommended that children ages 1-3 get 500 milligrams of calcium daily. Four- to 8-year-olds need 800 milligrams of calcium, and adolescents need at least 1,300 a day. Good sources of calcium include milk, dairy products, calcium fortified orange juice, soy products and breads. All types of milk, skim to whole, contain the same amount of calcium per serving.
For children who are lactose intolerant or do not like milk, there are other sources of calcium, such as almonds, red beans or dark green leafy vegetables. For children who are picky eaters, you may add a daily calcium supplement. And remember, vitamin D is necessary to absorb calcium, so make sure your child either drinks vitamin D-fortified milk or takes a vitamin supplement.

Slow Down on Salt
High salt intake is associated with elevated blood pressure (hypertension) in both children and adults. Elevated blood pressure in childhood may be an indicator of risk for hypertension as an adult and for the development of heart disease.

Having a preference for salt and salty foods is a learned habit. With the introduction of solid foods, many toddlers exceed the recommended intake of salt per day. For infants 6-12 months of age, no more than 1 gram per day of salt is recommended. For children older than a year, salt intake should not exceed 6 grams per day. You can help your child reduce the amount of salt in his or her diet by limiting processed foods, cooking with no salt seasoning and by not having salt on the table as a condiment.

The role of childhood diet in causing or preventing adult cancer is not completely understood. More parents are using organic foods to avoid exposure of their children to pesticides, hormones and other chemicals found in many commercial foods. It is not yet certain whether how much these exposures increase the risk of cancer or other medical conditions in children or adults, but studies have suggested that increasing fruits and vegetables and reducing toxic chemicals may be beneficial in preventing various cancers.

In general, eating a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, limiting high-fat foods and being physically active helps children grow to be healthy adults.

Dr. Osterberg is a pediatric resident at Levine Children’s Hospital of Carolinas Medical Center. Dr. Neuspiel is a general pediatrician at CMC-Myers Park Pediatrics and director of ambulatory pediatrics at Levine Children’s Hospital.