It's never too early to start these healthy habits, all of which can help prevent heart disease.

child making a heart
Credit: Thayer Gowdy

Unfortunately, most people don't realize they're doing themselves damage until they're diagnosed (usually in adulthood) because the process of developing heart disease takes many years, says Dr. Golden. However, signs do sometimes show up early, and may include excessive shortness of breath, chest pain, an irregular heartbeat, and easily tiring during exercise or activity. If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, discuss it with your pediatrician. To help lower your chances of ever needing to have that conversation, follow these tips to keep your child's heart in tip-top shape.

1. Manage the Menu

What you put on your child's plate can either help or hurt her heart. It's no surprise that a diet full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, low-fat dairy, and nuts will help keep your child healthy. But it's also important to limit sugar and saturated and trans fats, and to cut back on how often your family eats out. Restaurant meals' excess salt, fat, and super-sized portions can sabotage your child's health, says Dr. Golden.

2. Pass on the Salt

More Heart-Healthy Habits

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends children consume fewer than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day -- less than half the 3,387 milligrams they're actually taking in, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High-sodium diets put kids at increased risk for high blood pressure, which may cause the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. You can reduce your child's salt intake by providing fruit, vegetables, low-fat yogurt, or whole grain granola bars for snacks instead of chips, pretzels, and other high-sodium treats. It also helps to prepare foods fresh, instead of relying on processed fare, when time allows. When that's not convenient, keep in mind that 140 mg of sodium or less is considered low for packaged foods, and frozen and boxed meals should have no more than 600 mg per serving.

Another important thing to remember: Craving salt or adding it to meals is a learned behavior, says Doug Teske, M.D., a cardiologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Limit the amount of salt you put on your child's food (and your own), and remove the saltshaker from the table.

3. Go With the Grain

The fiber in whole grains may help regulate blood pressure. However, fewer than 4 percent of children meet the recommended three or more servings of whole grains per day, according to the American Heart Association. To add more of the good stuff to your child's diet, swap out refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, for whole grains, like whole-wheat bread and brown rice. Just be sure the substitutes are the real thing. Packages that say "multi-grain," "100 percent wheat," or "bran" are usually not whole grain. Instead, look for products that list "100 percent whole wheat" or "100 percent rye" as the first ingredient. Oatmeal, corn tortillas, and popcorn also count towards your child's three servings.

4. Pour Less Juice

Although juice may not directly cause heart disease, drinking too much can contribute to weight gain and obesity. Rather than giving your child juice every time he asks, offer a choice between water, low-fat milk, or a piece of fruit, says Dr. Teske. That's not to say you should never allow your child to drink juice -- just stick to 100 percent fruit juice and follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) recommended daily limits: no juice for babies under six months, 4 to 6 ounces per day for kids ages 6 months to 6 years, and up to 12 ounces for children ages 7 and older.

5. Rethink Meats

Sure, it's quick and easy to fix your child a ham sandwich for lunch or a hot dog for dinner. But processed meats like bacon, sausage, and cold cuts may increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Limit these foods to one serving or less per week, and cook lean cuts of meat like turkey and chicken, then save leftovers to use on sandwiches instead of processed fare.

6. Go Fish

In addition to poultry and other lean cuts of meat, try to eat two servings of seafood each week. Research shows the omega-3s found in fatty fish, like salmon, flounder, and tuna, lower the risk of heart disease by reducing blood clots, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing inflammation throughout the body. Just be sure to avoid fish high in mercury, like shark, king mackerel, tilefish, and swordfish. If your child isn't a fan of seafood, flaxseeds, walnuts, tofu, soybeans, and fish oil supplements can help him get the same heart-healthy benefits.

7. Watch Portion Sizes

More Steps for Heart Health

Even if a food is healthy, giving your child too many servings or too big portions will pack on the pounds. "The majority of Americans actually eat a normal, healthy diet but we eat too much food," says Dr. Teske. When feeding your child (and allowing her to prepare her own plate), err on the side of a small portion, especially for foods like meat, nuts, and grains, then allow her to take more if she's still hungry.

8. Don't Ignore Food Labels

"Learning what the ingredients on the label mean and how they affect your child's health is an important part of keeping her healthy," says Dr. Golden. When looking at a product, check the serving size, number of calories, and the percent daily value (%DV) of the food's nutrients. Healthy fare offers less than 5 percent of your daily value of fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and around 20 percent of nutrients like fiber, calcium, vitamins, and iron. Of course, most foods won't meet all these numbers, but knowing that 5 percent or less of your daily value is low, and 20 percent is high, can help guide you at the grocery store. The ingredients list can make things even easier. "If you read the list of ingredients and don't understand what any of the words mean, that's often a clue that your child shouldn't be eating them," says Dr. Golden. His general rule of thumb: The shorter the ingredient list, the better.

9. Work it Out

Children who get 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day have fewer risk factors for heart disease than kids who get less than that amount, according to one Swedish study. Keep your child interested in exercise by letting her do something she enjoys (like hula hooping, skating, or playing soccer). Getting in on the action, by going for a walk after dinner or taking a bike ride on the weekend, helps burn calories and build your family's bond.

10. Turn Off the Screens

Shutting down the power, whether it's on a television, computer, tablet, cell phone, or video game, will naturally result in kids getting more exercise. The AAP discourages children younger than 2 years from getting any screen time, and recommends limiting older children's media use to no more than two hours per day of quality programming.

11. Butt Out

Smoking isn't the only risk factor for heart issues -- secondhand smoke can lead to problems, too. Make it a habit to talk to your child about the dangers of smoking, and don't let anyone smoke around your child. If you smoke, work with your doctor to help you quit.

12. Keep Pressure in Check

All children age 3 and older should have their blood pressure measured every year. What's considered normal depends on your child's age, gender, and height, but your pediatrician should let you know if your child's blood pressure is too high. If it is, ask him about what changes in diet and physical activity you can help your child adapt to bring -- and keep -- blood pressure down.

13. Brush Up

The two may seem unrelated, but gum disease has been linked to heart disease. "It's not yet known whether gum disease causes heart disease or heart disease causes gum disease. Regardless of the relationship, simply having a link between the two makes oral hygiene especially important," says Shehzad Sheikh, D.M.D, a family dentist at Dominion Dental Care in Sterling, Virginia. Instilling good dental hygiene habits at an early age, by wiping your child's gums with a washcloth from day one, brushing your child's teeth when they erupt, then teaching him how to brush and floss himself, can go a long way towards preventing dental issues and possibly heart disease, says Dr. Sheikh.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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