The UK’s single biggest killer is heart disease. Emerging evidence suggests children/teenagers with high blood pressure and cholesterol may well carry this with them into adulthood. This, together with increasing obesity and diabetes rates mean optimal health in adulthood can be compromised. Understanding more about how to maintain good heart health through food and lifestyle and how to educate children is invaluable for establishing healthy behaviours and reducing heart disease risk.
While some factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption are introduced in adulthood, many others such as a sedentary lifestyle, stress and an unhealthy diet can be present during adolescence or even earlier in life. Laying the right foundations to help protect the heart within early years settings by establishing the importance of relaxation, exercise and healthy eating is essential.
With regard to healthy eating the top tips and nutrients for optimal heart health include:
Rainbow of Vegetables and Fruit: Statistics (BHF, 2013) suggest that less than one in five children eat their 5 a day (fruit and vegetables). 5 a day has been recommended as a minimum and the focus should predominantly be on vegetables rather than fruit. Vegetables and fruit contain a range of plant chemicals (phytonutrients), some of which are hugely beneficial for our heart health. These include lycopene found in cooked tomatoes, which is a powerful antioxidant and has been known to reduce blood pressure and inflammation. Polyphenols found in berries (blueberries, raspberries and strawberries) can increase nitric oxide production, which can reduce blood pressure. Apples and onions are both rich sources of quercetin, which is high in fibre, anti-inflammatory and contains antioxidants that can reduce the risk of heart disease. So maybe there is something in the old saying, ‘An apple a day”!
Focus on: Encouraging children to try different fruit and vegetables and to eat a daily rainbow. (Read ‘A Rainbow of Snack for under 5’s’ for more ideas.)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These essential fats are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds and are supportive for heart health as they can reduce inflammation, prevent blood clotting and help maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol. In contrast trans-fats found in ‘junk food’ such as biscuits, cakes and crisps should be avoided as these can increase inflammation and the risk of damage to the blood vessels.
Focus on: Talking to children and parents about ‘good fats’ and the importance of eating fish for a healthy heart. Make suggestions for packed lunches, e.g. swap crisps for oat cakes and vegetable sticks.
Vitamin C: This is a powerful antioxidant that can help prevent damage to the blood vessels. Low levels can present as tiredness, regular infections, bleeding gums and slow healing.
Focus on: Colourful fruits and vegetables such as papaya, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, oranges, kiwifruit and melon.
Magnesium: Hundreds of functions within the body require magnesium from bone and teeth health to energy production and immunity. It’s essential for the heart as it helps to maintain a normal heartbeat and has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Low levels have been linked to autism, anxiety and ADHD and signs such as loss of appetite, nausea, and cramps.
Focus on: Seeds, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, quinoa, nuts and beans.
Alongside these nutrients and a good overall balanced diet (Read ‘What essential vitamins and minerals do children need from 0-2 years?’ and ‘Be Salt Aware’) it’s also important to integrate exercise/activity into each day and some form of relaxation/balance/calmness. These will all establish life long behaviours, which may have an impact on reducing our children’s risk of heart disease into adulthood.