Cholesterol is Not Just an Adult Problem
It’s not just adults who can have high cholesterol, children can, too. As children with cholesterol problems usually grow up to become adults with high cholesterol, it’s important to have your child’s levels checked and monitored if they are high. High cholesterol in adults can result in serious heart health issues, such as heart attacks and strokes.
The good news is that a healthy diet and regular exercise can have a huge impact on your child’s cholesterol levels.
Are some kids more likely to have high cholesterol?
Children whose parents or grandparents have a history of high cholesterol or heart disease may be more at risk. In addition, children who are overweight, obese or have a diet high in sugar or saturated fat can also be at risk.
How do you test?
Levels are tested using a simple blood test while fasting. There are three key measurements that your doctor will look at to determine whether your child’s cholesterol levels are healthy. These are:
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) – think “L” as in “lousy” – is a type of cholesterol that clogs up your arteries and can cause heart attacks and strokes. Keeping LDL levels low is best for good health. An LDL level of 100 or less is considered healthy.
HDL (high-density lipoprotein) – think “H” as in “happy” – is a type of cholesterol that is good for heart health as it removes LDL from your blood vessels. High HDL levels are an indicator of good heart health. An HDL level of 45 or higher is beneficial.
Triglycerides are a circulating form of fat that can have a negative impact on heart health. They can lower your healthy HDL levels. Triglyceride levels go up or down depending on your recent diet. High levels are usually seen in kids who are overweight because they are consuming diets high in sugar. It’s best to keep triglyceride levels low. Triglyceride levels of 100 or lower for children, and 130 or lower for teens, are considered healthy.
Cholesterol testing for the first time is recommended for children between ages 9 and 11. If the test results are normal, repeat testing is not needed until early adulthood, unless the child develops prediabetes or weight issues. If results are abnormal, your child’s doctor will determine a regular follow-up plan.
What’s the best way to maintain healthy cholesterol levels?
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins is the way to go. Keep in mind that all dietary fats aren’t bad. Healthy fats and oils such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and fish are fine to include in your diet. Limit foods, particularly processed foods, that are high in saturated fat such red and processed meats, high-fat dairy products such as cheese and ice cream, and fried foods, pizza, hamburgers and premade lunch items such as Lunchables.
How can I make sure my child’s diet is heart-healthy?
Here are a few tips for maximizing the health benefits for the whole family:
Change up the snacks: Eat fewer chips, crackers such as Goldfish, cookies and other boxed or packaged foods. Choose vegetables and whole fruits whenever possible. Apple slices with nut butter are a great snack.
Cook more yourself: Restaurants use a lot of fat and salt to make their dishes taste better. Instead of eating out, use whole, fresh ingredients and eat at home together as a family. No time? It doesn’t have to be complicated. Baked salmon with steamed green beans or a bowl of whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce and a simple green salad are great, easy meals. Or just slice up some fresh fruit and vegetables and put them on the side.
Make half your plate fruits and veggies: Add a colorful variety of these health boosters to every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Ditch sugary drinks: Avoid sugar-laden sodas and juices and know that popular fruit smoothies, frozen and blended drinks can contain well over a healthy daily sugar allowance. Enjoy whole fruits rather than blending them into a high-calorie smoothie.
Read the labels: Check the nutrition fact labels on foods for their saturated fat, trans fat and sugar contents. Make sure you know the sugar content of any prepared drinks you purchase.
Start plain: Choose plain yogurt and oatmeal over prepackaged, ready-sweetened products. Then customize with your favorite fruit and nut toppings.
The best thing about eating a good diet is that it not only ensures healthy cholesterol levels, it also has many other significant health benefits. Your child will feel better, sleep better, have more energy and be able to concentrate better at school.
Is there anything else to help keep cholesterol levels healthy?
Regular exercise is just as important as a good diet for your child’s health and is the most powerful way to boost your HDL levels. Help your child be active and exercise enough to elevate his or her heart rate at least five times a week. You are the best role model. By eating healthy foods yourself, encouraging your family to be active together and valuing good health habits, you will help your child develop heart-friendly habits for life.
Julia Nordgren M.D., is a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s (PAMF) Palo Alto Center. She is an epert in pediatric cholesterol management and a physician member of PAMF’s Pediatric Weight Management Program. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.