Healthy and Happy Hearts

A review of cardiovascular health recommendations for children

February is Heart Health Month in Canada and so we at EcoParent thought it would be a great time to go over the important factors of heart health in your children!

Our children’s health sets a significant precedent about their eventual health as adults, especially when it comes to cardiovascular risk factors and disease. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada estimates that 31% of Canadian children and youth are either overweight or obese. Of these, four out of five children will grow up to be overweight adults, increasing their risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Studies looking at the health of overweight and obese children are finding that despite the extra weight, most children are in fact undernourished and nutrient deficient. This is explained by the assumption of high-sugar, processed foods, now commonplace in the standard North American diet, offering little nutritional value.

These statics are alarming and continue to grow annually. Health practitioners and parents play an important role to model and educate children on the basics of a healthy lifestyle. Establishing healthy habits in childhood confers a greater likelihood that theses habits continue into adulthood, imparting lifelong benefits.

As a naturopathic doctor, if I observe children eating too many unhealthy foods, getting too little activity, and too much screen time, I may be concerned about their weight and cardiovascular health. Our greatest tools as practitioners are education and prevention. Let’s explore what the recommendations are for healthy diet and exercise in the childhood years so you can best support your child in maintaining a healthy weight.

Healthy Diet Recommendations

We want to aim for children to eat three healthy balanced meals a day. What does a healthy balanced meal look like? Here is how I break it down to my patients.

Ideally, you want to aim that every meal has:

  • 1-3 servings of vegetables: Offering a variety of vegetables may increase the likelihood of consumption for those of you with picky eaters (1/2 the plate)
  • 1 serving of protein: Protein helps balance our blood sugar and provides much needed building blocks at the cellular level. Protein is also our easiest source of certain essential nutrients. (1/4 of the plate)
  • A healthy source of fat: Fat also helps to balance our blood sugar, and is important for neural and gastrointestinal health. Options include avocado, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil or nut butters. (1 serving size/1-2 tablespoons)
  • Low-glycemic carbohydrate: Choosing whole, unrefined grains are your best option to prevent blood sugar spikes. Carbohydrates are an important part of our diet for gastrointestinal regulation and energy. They should, however, not make up the majority of our meals. (1/4 of the plate)
  • Water as main beverage: Avoiding sugary drinks (including sweet fruit juices) is one of the easiest changes to make to decrease our children’s exposure and risk factors for an unhealthy weight. Note that liquids should not be had with meals in order to maximize our stomach’s acidity when digesting.

Snacks are often where we get stuck the most. This is a great time for fruit! Providing fruit at snack and dessert time ensure that you are getting valuable nutrients instead of processed, sugar-packed “food”. Having a fat or protein source with snack times will continue to ensure balanced blood sugar levels. This is important in preventing the dips and spikes in energy levels throughout the day, which also tend to contribute to mood disorders.

Great examples for snacks include:

  • Apple and nut butter
  • Vegetable sticks and hummus or guacamole
  • Fruit smoothie with a tablespoon of nut butter or coconut oil
  • Nuts and seeds (either solo or made into a healthy homemade protein bar)

Some tips for encouraging healthy eating habits in your children are:

  • Talk about the importance of healthy food and the differences between whole foods and processed foods
  • Engage your children in the shopping and cooking process and decisions
  • Make dinner time family time together
  • Teach your children how to read food labels and make a game of it when shopping or making food decisions

Exercise Recommendations

Humans naturally want to move. Our bodies perform better, feel better, function better and stay healthier when we engage in regular movement/exercise. Children are great examples of our natural desire for movement – they never stop! The health benefits of physical activity are numerous. Specific to cardiovascular health, regular activity strengthens our heart, reduces and maintains our blood pressure, maintains a healthy weight, and decreases our future risk factors for cardiovascular events.

The minimum requirements for exercise recommendations set out by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Government of Canada are as follows:

Babies and Toddlers:

  • Activity throughout the day through different activities and positions

Children and Teenagers:

  • 60 min of moderate to vigorous intense activity per day
  • Vigorous activity 3 times per week
  • Muscle strengthening activities 2-3 times per week
  • Bone strengthening activities 2-3 times per week

How do we translate this? First off, muscle and bone strengthening is accomplished through the moderate or vigorous activity of every day. Moderate activity is defined as your child breathing harder with an increased heart rate. They are able to talk to you without breathing difficulties, but would not be able to sing their favourite song. These activities include walking, bike riding, yoga and skateboarding. Vigorous activity is defined as needing to catch their breath while talking, and increased heart rate. Vigorous activities include running, skating, jump rope, tag, and high intensity sports (soccer, hockey, etc.). Muscle and bone strengthening activities are activities that require resistance and impact such as push ups, climbing stairs, hiking, riding a bike and most sports.

Some tips for encouraging an increase in movement and activity for your child are:

  • Encourage daily unstructured activity such as shoveling, dancing, and easy games like tag
  • Engage in physical family activities like hiking, swimming or Frisbee games
  • Encourage activities that provide your child joy. We are more likely to engage in activities that we find pleasurable!

Screen time boundaries

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we also need to discourage excessive sitting and sedentary activity, like screen time. The current recommendation for screen time in children over two years of age is no more than two hours per day. Screen time for children under the age of two is discouraged completely. A handout on how to reduce screen time hours with your children is provided by The Canadian Pediatric Society.

Monkey see, monkey do

My best tip and strategy for creating healthy habits in our children is to be a role model. Adopting healthy diet and movement into your own daily routine demonstrates its importance far more clearly than anything a doctor or you can impart through words. You will send the message that healthy choices are a priority in your family. If you notice that your child is struggling with maintaining a healthy weight, start to encourage positive ideas around healthy habits, food and movement. We want to focus on their accomplishments and things they are already doing well, reinforcing the positive behavior rather than punishing the negative. Children’s self confidence and self-esteem are important to be mindful of when navigating the terrain of healthy weight management. If you are struggling in any way, enlist the help of a health practitioner such as a naturopathic doctor, holistic nutritionist, or family doctor.

My final tip is to have fun! Healthy habits should be fun and full of love, which happens to be the final ingredient of holistic heart health.

Happy Heart Health Month!