Children who learn heart healthy eating habits lower heart disease risk

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A new study in a mid-August edition of Circulation: Journal of the America Heart Association confirms that when young children learn about heart healthy eating habits, it can strongly influence their heart disease risk later in life.

Results from the Turku Coronary Risk Factor Intervention Project have landmark implications on how children should be taught to eat. In this study, a child's fat intake, primarily reduction in intake of saturated fat, was found to be one of the greatest influencing factors, according to the research.

The publication of this study is timely since September 2007 is National Cholesterol Education Month, sponsored by the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's National Cholesterol Education Program.

Harri Niinikoski, M.D, Ph.D, lead author and a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Turku in Finland, says: “The aim of the diet counseling in our study was not to reduce the total number of fat calories in the diet, but to shift the child's intake from saturated toward unsaturated fats and have cholesterol intakes of less than 200 mg (such as the use of more vegetable oils than animal fats and butter.)”

Key dietary changes in the intervention families included: 1) using soft margarine and liquid oils instead of butter to maintain adequate fat intake while lowering consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol, and 2) appropriate adjustments to the type of milk consumed by the children.

Consumption of vegetables, fruits, berries, and whole grain products was encouraged as well.

The intervention families consisted of 540 children and their families who underwent intensive diet counseling; the control group (522 children and family members) received only basic dietary advice. The goal of dietary counseling for the intervention group was to keep total intake of fat at 30% to 35% of daily calories, the ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fats at 1:2, and cholesterol intake to less than 200 milligrams daily.

The study concludes: A low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol– oriented nutrition intervention had a favorable effect on saturated fat intake and serum total and LDL cholesterol concentrations throughout the first 14 years of life, with percent of cholesterol lowering differing by age and sex. The lipid lowering effect was maintained through pre-puberty and puberty, when children consume exceedingly more of their dietary intakes away from home.

“We feel that lifetime habits form early in life and healthier lifestyles should be started earlier in life,” Niinikoski remarks. “We were trying to find out whether it is safe to start a lower-saturated-fat and lower-cholesterol diet early in life.”

Niinikoski adds, “In the long run, even a minor decrease in serum cholesterol concentrations in a large population can have a major influence on coronary heart disease.”

Another important study with 226 participants (children and their parents) was conducted in the U.S. and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The children reduced their bad (LDL) cholesterol levels by nine percent when soft margarine was used in place of butter; adults significantly reduced their cholesterol levels as well by making the same substitution.

One emphasis of this year's National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) is on fat intake. As noted by NCEP, “Saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol in the diet all raise the level of LDL "bad" cholesterol in the blood. The higher the LDL cholesterol, the greater the risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), the main form of heart disease and a leading cause of death, illness, and disability in the United States. Saturated fat and trans fat raise LDL similarly, but Americans consume 4-5 times as much saturated fat as trans fat. Saturated fat is the chief dietary culprit that raises LDL, but consumers need to know about all three - saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol - in the foods they eat to reduce their risk for CHD and stay heart-healthy.” The use of soft or liquid margarines and oils is recommended vs animal fats (i.e., butter) throughout all of the NCEP materials.

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