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With today being Valentine’s Day and store shelves are filled with candy hearts, it’s a good time to think about the heart health of the people we love, including our children.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of adults in the United States. Its risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, lack of physical activity, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and family history of heart disease. Almost all of these can be managed starting in childhood.

One of the best ways to help promote a heart-healthy life is by encouraging healthy eating habits. A typical American diet is high in saturated fat, which leads to higher cholesterol levels. High cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of atherosclerosis – thickening of the arteries – even in children and adolescents.

The American Heart Association recommends starting a heart-healthy diet, low in saturated fats, starting at 2 years of age. This can be accomplished by choosing lower-fat dairy products and limiting greasy foods and red meats. The best way to encourage these healthy eating habits for your kids is by acting as a role model and following them yourself. It is also important to screen adolescents for high cholesterol levels, starting at younger ages if children are overweight or when there is a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol.

It can be difficult to maintain healthy eating habits. Families are often on the go, and parents may find it easier to choose fast food, which is higher in fat and sodium, over healthier meals cooked at home. Also, many kids are picky eaters, and convincing them to focus on fruits and vegetables instead of fatty foods can be difficult. Studies show that when picky eaters help with meal prep, they are more willing to try new and different foods. In addition, when parents model good eating habits, kids are more likely to mimic their behaviors.

Parents should also work on staying active. This includes limiting screen time to two hours and aiming for one hour of physical activity every day. Parents who sit and watch TV all evening are going to have a harder time encouraging their kids to exercise, while families that find ways to stay active together are more likely to sustain those healthy lifestyles.

There are many great activities to try as a family: bike rides, skiing, skating, swimming or even finding some active household chores to complete as a family. Older children and adolescents can also participate in rec league or school sports to stay active.

Regardless of the activity, it’s important for the whole family to find time every day to be active. By setting the precedent of consistent physical activity from a young age, we can help the future generations establish healthy life practices and reduce their risk of heart disease.

Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.

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