Protecting the health of our heart matters at any age. How we keep the heart healthy is very much connected to the way we live – how we eat, exercise, manage stress and sleep. At different stages in life, our health needs change. Growing children require more attention than young adults. At middle age, heart disease is most common, but often preventable. Older people must take even more precautions to keep their hearts strong and healthy. The longer we live, the more we have to adjust our lifestyles and take steps for the benefit of our health and especially the heart.
Our Health Needs May Change Over Time
The Health of Our Heart Is Vital at Any Age
Infants and toddlers
The health needs of infants and toddlers are quite different from other age groups. They undergo phases of rapid growth and use up large amounts of calories, protein, fat and other nutrients. The optimal growth of the brain, nervous system, musculature, bones and other body organs depends on sound nutrition. Brain development, in particular, depends on fat. During the first two years of life, the brain grows faster than any other organ. Limiting fat in an infant’s diet can compromise the healthy development of the brain and the nervous system.
Fat is also a good source of concentrated calorie supply, which is needed for fast body growth. Because the amount of food a little stomach can handle is limited, fat is an important booster. But not all fats are equally beneficial. Preferable are “heart healthy” plant-based fats from olive-, canola- and avocado oil.
The nutritional quality of all foods infants and toddlers receive matters greatly. Young children are more vulnerable to pollutants, toxins and chemicals than adults. So-called “empty calories” from nutritionally poor foods should be avoided as much as possible.
Despite the risk of childhood obesity, calorie restriction is not warranted this early in life. This is not the time for dieting and fasting. Parents should not withhold food out of fear to bring up a “fat baby.” Feeding struggles between adults and babies can cause future problems with eating disorders in later years. This also holds true for the flip side. Pushing babies consistently to eating beyond their natural appetite can set the stage for a lifetime of overeating.
Generally speaking, the nutritional guidelines for infants and toddlers should be focused on growth and development support only. What happens nutritionally at this time in their lives forms the foundation for all that is to come in the way of their human potential.
Parents should be aware they are making an important investment in the health of their children by giving them the nutrition their young bodies require for a healthy start.
Children should be introduced to a vast variety of foods from early on to build their palate and develop their preferences. Wholesome foods, like fresh organic fruits and vegetables, should dominate their diet as soon as possible.
There are many ways to direct children towards healthy eating habits, which will hopefully serve them well for the rest of their lives. Bribery and punishment are not among them. Teaching by good example is a better approach. Young children learn mostly by imitation. If parents and older siblings adhere to healthy eating habits, the younger ones will adopt these more easily.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that children between the age of three and ten should be exposed to a diet that promotes heart health and reduces the risk of chronic diseases in the future. Eating- and lifestyle habits formed during childhood are expected to be more persistent than those developed during adulthood.
Between the ages of three and ten, children should be given reduced fat products to minimize animal fat intake. Sources of lean protein, like fish, skinless chicken breast and meats trimmed of fat, are preferable to their fatty counterparts, like burgers, hot dogs and processed lunch meats. Foods with high amounts of sugar or salt as well as fried items should be served as little as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends an upper limit of saturated fat intake of 10% of total calories and 300 mg cholesterol for children per day.
By contrast, a rich supply of varied fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains should be included in most meals.
Childhood obesity has become a serious health risk factor today, and it is only getting worse. Unhealthy diets combined with sedentary lifestyles continue to foster this trend. Better food choices at home and in schools are necessary to turn the tide. Regular exercise must be a part of every child’s day. Physical education (PE) must be brought back and made mandatory for all grade levels. Families should spend more time on sports and outdoor activities than watching TV and playing video games. Parents are not helpless and children don’t have to be victims, if we choose to make the necessary changes.
Teenagers and young adolescents experience many profound changes in their lives, including dramatic growth spurts. Their nutritional needs alter accordingly. In fact, right before puberty, teenagers have the highest nutritional demand since infancy. The bodies of older teenagers and adolescents face the same risk factors for disease as young adults.
Social and lifestyle influences are most significant at this time. Parents find their influence fading as their kids start making their own choices. Teenagers tend to skip family dinners and rather go out with their peers. Frequently, home cooked meals are replaced with fast food and snacks. If fast food restaurants become the primary food source at this age, there is a great risk for nutritional imbalances and deficiencies that can jeopardize healthy growth and development.
This is the time where a lot of risky behavior comes into play. Experimentation with tobacco, drugs and alcohol is not uncommon, which can cause serious lasting health damages.
Obesity is on the rise at alarming rates in this age group as well. Today’s teenagers and adolescents are facing weight problems in numbers we have never seen before. Diabetes and heart disease are widespread and seem to occur earlier with every generation.
More and more young adults are also diagnosed with atherosclerosis, which is plaque building up inside their arteries. The arterial blockage can begin during childhood and progress throughout adolescence. High levels of blood cholesterol are associated with this disease. Children who have high cholesterol early in life are likely to suffer from cholesterol-related health problems as adults.
Genetic pre-conditions also may facture in. If there is a family history of heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, teenagers should be regularly monitored for those diseases.