Making school lunch more heart-friendly

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Kindergarten children eating packed lunch together

Children’s low heart health scores increase risk of future heart disease

Tips on how to make school lunch more heart-friendly

Back-to-school is just upon us, yet some scores are already in, and they aren’t good.  A new scientific statement published by the American Heart Association says that children are missing the mark when it comes to heart-healthy diets.

Most kids are born with ideal cardiovascular health, yet heart disease is a leading cause of death in America. Your child’s poor eating habits can start chipping away at that ideal heart health status at an early age, paving the road for future risk factors of heart disease.

In fact, the statement reveals that while most children have great blood pressure, about 91 percent of American children have poor diets.

Health risks linked to a poor diet

Grab-and-go foods fly off shelves and drive-thru restaurants thrive on nearly every street corner because both provide meal and snack options that are cheap, fast, and easy. But these foods aren’t necessarily the shiny penny they present themselves to be. Instead, when eaten regularly as substitutes for a balanced diet, the high-calorie low-nutrition foods can wreak havoc on our bodies.

“Several studies show risk factors in children predict adult heart disease,” said Stuart Rowe, MD, pediatric cardiologist at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas.

Dell Children’s is a Seton hospital and part of Ascension, the nation’s largest Catholic and nonprofit health care system.

Rowe also warns poor diets in children can increase the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, iron deficiency, dental cavities, sleep apnea, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headache and more.

Good heart healthy eating habits begin at home 

Diet and heart health go and in hand, and it’s never too early to start eating for a healthy heart. The American Heart Association urges that good habits should begin at birth. Rowe agrees with this.

“Preventing heart disease in the first place—while kids are young—is much easier than treating it as an adult,” he said. “The best way to improve adult cardiovascular health is to steer children into a heart-healthy lifestyle.”

Rowe encourages parents to lead by example, setting healthy eating habits early, and if changes in a child’s diet need to be made, he says start talking with your child’s pediatrician.

“Try your best to avoid high calorie foods with little nutrients, processed foods sugary drinks.”

Packing school lunches? Here’s how to make heart healthy choices:

  • Encourage kids to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day
  • Consider using MyPlate to teach proper portion control
  • Skip chips or cookies and opt for fresh fruits or vegetables such as carrot & celery sticks with ranch dressing or hummus, or apple slices with string cheese
  • Gradually cut out sugar-sweetened beverages and switch to water throughout the day
  • Introduce fruit-water by using a fruit infusion pitcher
  • Limit high-sugar drinks to one or less per week
  • Switch to lower fat dairy products such as low-fat (1%) or nonfat milk, yogurt, cottage cheese & sour cream
  • Use lean meats, poultry, fish or lentils and beans for protein
  • Switch from white bread, rice or pasta to whole grain or whole wheat varieties