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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Keeping our kids young at heart

Published: Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Health Department columnist

Can you remember as a child eating a cookie made up of two chocolate rounds glued together by a delicious cream? I do, because I would pull the cookie apart and scrape off the sweet middle with my teeth. The chocolate pieces went to the trash can, but most kids I knew ate the whole cookie. However you ate it, you probably knew the cookie was only a treat--never a part of your regular diet.

Not so for some children. Sometimes a parent doesn't want to say no to a child's repeated whines for sweets, knowing that a 'no' could bring on a temper tantrum. Maybe the mother isn't aware of how many sweets her child is eating each day. Perhaps a mom is not nutrition savvy. Parenting is frequently learning as you go.

February is Heart Health Month, and these examples had me thinking about how our eating habits in early years can influence how heart healthy we are as adults. It's important to ponder because heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the United States and the second cause of death for North Carolinians.

About half of all American adults have at least one of the three major risk factors for heart disease — high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. Other risk factors include having diabetes, having a family history of heart disease, being obese, eating an unhealthy diet and not getting enough exercise.

Unfortunately, some children are already at risk of heart disease as adults because of how they eat today. While the focus of prevention is often on adults, it's worth reviewing what we're doing to protect the heart health of children. Are we as parents modeling and supporting an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits?

Statistics show that we're not doing a good job. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. An obese child already has increased risk for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Obese adolescents are more likely to have prediabetes. Both children and adolescents who are obese are at risk for bone and joint problems and sleep apnea.

But effects on health are also long-term. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to continue to be obese as adults. This puts them more at risk for health problems as adults, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. Even if they overcome obesity, the risk of early onset cardiovascular disease persists.

Amy McCall, a registered dietitian for the health department's KidFit Program, a weight management program for children and teens ages 2-18 years, sees these issues frequently. Her job is to encourage and educate both children and parents toward a hearthealthy lifestyle, which includes good nutrition and physical activity.

But the onus is on us — the parents — to model and support the dietary and physical activity behaviors that keep a heart healthy. We're not alone in this responsibility. Other adults such as grandparents, teachers, coaches, child care teachers and health care providers influence health habits too.

What else is competing for our youths' attention? Don't discount the negative influences. Advertising from the food and beverage industry encourages consumption of unhealthy products. Electronic entertainment keeps children still for hours. Peer influence is strong, and is of particular concern now because of the e-cigarette industry. Current e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to data published by the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products. Nicotine is dangerous for kids at any age in any form-e-cigarette, hookah, cigarette or cigar.

Are you starting to wonder if your child's heart is healthy? Could your teen have any risk factors for heart disease? Did you used to think that cardiovascular disease is only for the older generation? Maybe it's time to rethink heart health. Talk to your child's health care provider if you're concerned. But continue to adopt and model those healthful behaviors now: Be the parent. Say no to sweets; make healthier choices for young kids, even if they whine. Be active. Eat a healthy diet yourself. You'll not only improve your own heart health, but you'll keep your kids young at heart as they grow up.

If you think your child could benefit from the health department's KidFit weight management program, which includes individual nutrition counseling services by a registered dietitian, please call 828-694-6029.

Kim Horton is the communications manager at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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