Healthy habits as a child lead to a healthier heart as an adult

  • Children, as well as adults, benefit from eating a heart-healthy diet.

    Children, as well as adults, benefit from eating a heart-healthy diet.

  • Dr. Irwin Benuck

    Dr. Irwin Benuck

By Lurie Children’s Hospital
Posted2/1/2020 6:00 AM

The foods we consume as children can have an impact on our health as adults -- particularly heart health.

As we celebrate National Heart Health month, Dr. Irwin Benuck, division head of Community-Based Primary Care Pediatrics and physician for Lurie Children's Preventive Cardiology Program, shares important reminders and ways to maximize your heart health.


"It's important that the foods children consume be nutritionally rich, not caloric dense," said Benuck. Foods such as fresh fruits (berries), vegetables (leafy greens) and lean proteins (skinless chicken and fish) can significantly contribute to a healthy heart.

"We encourage children to drink plenty of water. For milk, 1% or fat free white milk is ideal," Benuck said. "When preparing meals for your child, divide a plate in four quadrants with a section each for fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains, such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta."

Foods that are heart healthy prevent plaque buildup in the coronary arteries and in the blood vessels that provide blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. "In addition, consuming heart healthy foods can help prevent obesity, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and premature coronary artery disease, a narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries," Benuck said.

Foods that are high in sugar, such as soda pop, juice and sports drinks, as well as fatty foods (especially saturated and trans fats like pastries and fried foods) and whole milk dairy products accelerate coronary artery disease. "I frequently say that coronary artery disease is not an adult disease. It is a pediatric disease," said Benuck. "All the risk factors as well as the genetics begin early in life. Even individuals who are genetically predisposed to coronary artery disease benefit greatly from heart healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle."

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Benuck and his colleagues in the Preventive Cardiology Program at Lurie Children's Hospital support Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children's (CLOCC) 5-4-3-2-1 Go! model. With generous funding from Kohl's Cares, CLOCC's 5-4-3-2-1 Go! recommends a child have five servings of fruits and vegetables, four servings of water, three servings of 1% or fat free white milk, less than two hours of recreational screen time (phone, computer and video game) and one or more hours of physical activity daily, including at least 100 minutes of vigorous physical activity weekly.

Benuck also stresses that the high use of recreational screen time, including screens in bedrooms, interferes and competes with physical activity as well as good sleep. "We are now finding that sleep is very important for healthy lifestyles and hearts," said Benuck. Additionally, Benuck points out that it's not uncommon during screen time to "mindlessly eat" or over eat.

"The habits a person learns at a young age will last a lifetime. It is very difficult to change behavior and is much easier to shape behavior," Benuck stressed. "By providing and encouraging a healthy lifestyle at a young age, individuals are more likely to obtain habits conducive to a healthy heart."

Lurie Children's Preventive Cardiology Program is committed to improving the health of children at risk for heart disease. Lurie cares for children who have cardiac risk factors for heart and vascular disease, which may include high cholesterol, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, obesity and a family history of heart attacks and strokes.

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

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