THURSDAY, Jan. 18, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- TV commercials touting cholesterol-lowering remedies typically feature middle-aged men and women. The reason: That's when the soft, waxy substance can start to clog arteries, raising the risk of heart disease.
But experts say the focus on reducing threats to the heart should start much early, as soon as early childhood.
If more parents instilled heart-healthy habits from the time their children were toddlers, they could greatly reduce their kids' risk of future problems.
"The message is that a healthy diet early in life potentially has long-term benefits," Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Colorado, and former president of the American Heart Association, told HealthDay. "The idea that heart disease starts in the 50s has been substantially discounted. Saturated fat is always an enemy to the arteries, at any age."
The value of adopting a heart-healthy diet early in life is being demonstrated in an ongoing study in Finland, where researchers in 1990 began following more than 1,000 infants who were 7 months old at the time.
Half of the children were allowed an unrestricted diet, while the parents of the other half were directed to feed their children a diet low in saturated fats -- the unhealthy fats that are typically found in foods from animals. Those parents also received dietary and lifestyle counseling twice a year.
The benefits of the low-saturated fat diets and counseling were revealed in tests done when the children were 11. Ultrasound images of the boys' arteries found that those on the low-saturated fat diets had blood vessels that were better able to widen, allowing blood to flow more freely.
No such difference was seen for the girls, a finding reported for females in some adult studies. "The reason for this is not known, but one explanation could be estrogen," said study co-investigator Dr. Olli Raitakari, chief physician at the Turku University Central Hospital. Estrogen, the female sex hormone, influences the number of receptors for LDL cholesterol, the "bad" kind that clogs arteries, he said.
Still, the findings for the boys were very encouraging, Raitakari said, and the researchers believe the benefits for girls will eventually prove true. The study will continue until the children turn 20.
Alicia Moag-Stahlberg is a registered dietitian and executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, a partnership of more than 50 national organizations and government agencies that aims to correct America's epidemic of overweight, inactive and undernourished children by helping make changes in the schools.
She said U.S. based-guidelines don't recommend "any manipulation of fat under the age of 2 years." Dietary recommendations for children and teens from the American Academy of Pediatrics state that children 2 years old and older get a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and non-fat dairy, beans, fish and lean meats. The guidelines also recommends low amounts of saturated and trans fats.
After age 2 "is when you want to make sure you start to feed them a diet that embodies the dietary guidelines," said Moag-Stahlberg. If you do, you can be assured you are helping ensure your child's heart health, she said.
"Heart health means applying the dietary guidelines," Moag-Stahlberg said. "At home and at school, it's not just about not having candy and potato chips [to excess]. It's, are they getting enough of these other foods, along with physical activity."
The American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children aged 2 to 3 years old eat a diet in which fats make up 30 percent to 35 percent of total calories. By age 4 and continuing through the teens, fats should make up no more than 25 percent to 35 percent of total calories.
And parents can expect more help from schools to make sure their children are eating properly, Moag-Stahlberg said. Beginning with the 2006-07 school year, schools participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition programs must establish a local wellness policy to meet the requirements of the Child Nutrition and WIC (women, infants and children) Reauthorization Act.
The act, designed to combat the childhood obesity epidemic, calls for schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, milk, and better quality meats.
Parents can ask their school officials to outline the new policies for both nutrition and physical activity, Moag-Stahlberg said. "Ask, 'How are you going to meet the new goals?'" she said.
To learn more about children and heart health, visit the American Heart Association.