A new study from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has found that 1 out of 5 children in the US has at least one unhealthy measure of cholesterol.
In the study of youths between the ages of 6 and 19, 21 percent had one or more of the following:
- Too little “good” HDL cholesterol
- Too much “bad” LDL cholesterol
- Too much total cholesterol
This is concerning, without question: Unhealthy cholesterol levels are some of the top risk factors for heart disease later in life, and they’re already showing up in our children. But the study also presents an opportunity to talk about this, learn more and make changes now that can improve each child’s shot at a healthy future.
A quick cholesterol lesson: Why LDL is bad and HDL is good
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that your body uses to build cells. Your liver and other cells make cholesterol, but you also get cholesterol from the foods you eat. If you have more cholesterol than your cells can use, the excess keeps circulating in your blood. High cholesterol levels can have a serious impact on your cardiovascular health.
When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, over time it can stick to the inside walls of small blood vessels, making them stiff and clogged. This condition is called atherosclerosis. When the vessels become so clogged that blood can’t reach the heart, the result is a heart attack.
HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, protects the heart. It acts like a cholesterol collector, traveling through the blood, picking up excess LDL and carrying it to the liver, where it can be broken down, stored for later use or eliminated from the body. HDL is the measure you want to keep high. (An easy way to keep them straight: L is for low and H is for high.)
Unhealthy cholesterol levels can be caused by genetic factors or by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and little exercise. Regardless of the cause, making changes now can significantly improve the outlook for a child’s future.
Five things parents can do to promote healthy cholesterol levels in kids
1) Encourage physical activity
- Exercise reduces LDL cholesterol and helps keep weight in check.
- Children and teens should get at least an hour of vigorous activity each day.
- Ask youngsters: How much playground time did you get today? Active play time after school can make up the difference.
- Encourage teens to join a team sport, a gym, a community center or a YMCA teen fitness program.
- Instead of giving teens a ride, suggest they go by bike (and wear a helmet).
- For more ideas, read Are your kids getting the exercise they need?
2) Focus on healthy body weight
- In the NCHS study, children who were obese were the most likely to have unhealthy cholesterol levels.
- Weight loss has been shown to improve HDL.
- Don’t put kids on a “diet,” but do encourage making choices that support a healthy weight.
- Limiting sugary sodas, sports drinks and juices is a quick, easy way to start.
- Read Ask an expert: Heavy kids for more suggestions.
3) Offer healthy food choices
- Remember: You control what your child eats because you control which groceries you buy – so buy healthy choices.
- Encourage children to participate by choosing vegetables at the store, or even growing their own at home.
- Eliminate foods with trans fats. These partially hydrogenated fats in fried foods, cookies, cakes, crackers, pizzas and donuts contribute to high LDL.
- Reduce saturated fats from fatty meats and whole-fat dairy products – they increase LDL cholesterol.
- Include healthy unsaturated fats like olive oil and canola oil, and especially the LDL-lowering omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish.
- Include high-fiber foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables – they boost HDL. Five servings of fruits and vegetables per day should be a minimum; eating more veggies is even better.
- Learn 12 ways to turn your kids into vegetable lovers.
4) Be a good role model.
- Children model what you do. Want to teach them? Show them.
- Set an example: Let your kids see you enjoying a big salad and making activity a priority in your life.
5) Get your children screened
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends cholesterol screening for all children at least once between the ages of 9 and 11.
- A simple cholesterol test can identify children with unhealthy cholesterol for any reason – whether it’s genetic, caused by another health condition or related to lifestyle.
The lifestyle and dietary choices that children make today will directly influence health – for better or for worse – in the future. As a parent, do everything you can to help them make choices for the better.
Your pediatrician can help. If you don’t have a pediatrician, find one here.