A study published in late 2015 revealed one in five American children had at least one abnormal cholesterol measurement. That statistic has been supported by many national entities, including the Centers for Disease Control (1).
Abnormal cholesterol could be total cholesterol, LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, HDL (or “good”) cholesterol, triglyceride levels, or any combination of them.
What is cholesterol and why is it a problem in children? Cholesterol is a yellowish fat-like substance that floats in the blood. We use cholesterol to make certain hormones, Vitamin D, and chemicals that help digest food. The problem is if cholesterol gets too high, it can start to build up in the arteries or affect the liver. Narrow arteries can affect blood flow to any major organ in the body, starting with the heart. Decreased blood flow affects how well the brain and other organs in the body grow and develop. As a person ages, the risk of developing a complete blockage of an artery increases. This build-up can start in children as young as two years old.
What causes abnormal cholesterol levels? Genetics can cause someone to have abnormal cholesterol. A family history is a good indicator of risks. However, most abnormal cholesterol issues in children are related to diet, physical activity and overall weight. Diets low in fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and high in processed fats and sugars typically lead to abnormal cholesterol levels. Avoiding sugary beverages, such as regular soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks, limit the risk of elevated triglycerides. Limiting high-fat foods, like chips and fried foods will decrease total cholesterol levels.
Children should be encouraged to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. A half a cup of cooked vegetables or a handful of grapes counts as a serving for most children. Fruit juice, even 100% fruit juice, should be limited to one 8-oz cup per day. At least half their grains should come from whole grain sources, like whole wheat, oatmeal, rye, brown rice or corn. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide fiber which can naturally lower cholesterol levels.
Children should also be encouraged to have some kind of physical activity every day. It should start at 20-30 minutes two to three times per week and gradually increase to 50-60 minutes five to six times per week. Consider family soccer games or walks. Host a fun dance competition for your children and their friends. Just remember that physical activity for children should be fun!
Children need support and good role models to make successful healthy decisions. Parent’s food and activity choices can have a big impact on their children’s overall health, so work to try to make those choices the best ones possible.
Catherine Page, MEd, RD, LDN, is an outpatient dietitian with Aramark Healthcare and Harrington HealthCare System.