TUESDAY, Dec. 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- You're never too young to eat a heart-healthy diet, a new study finds.
Researchers in Finland report that a diet low in saturated fats boosted boys' cardiovascular health, resulting in lower blood cholesterol and clearer arteries.
The same results weren't seen for girls, but that could change with time, said Dr. Olli T. Raitakari, an associate professor of clinical physiology at Turku University and lead author of a report in the Dec. 6 issue of Circulation.
"We plan to continue the study at least until the age of 20 years [the oldest children are now 16 years of age]," Raitakari said. "Final conclusions are made after that."
The benefits for boys of a diet low in saturated fats were clear. Those fats contribute to high blood levels of cholesterol, which can lead to deposits that eventually block arteries. These blockages can cause heart attacks and other cardiac problems.
The study included 1,062 children, half of whose families were instructed to feed them a diet low in saturated fats starting at 7 months of age. Those parents also received dietary and lifestyle counseling twice a year.
For example, they were told that the saturated fat content of a diet can be reduced in a number of ways, such as substituting chicken for red meat, broiling rather than pan-frying meat, using vegetable oil rather than butter, and using low-fat milk. Families in the other group got no such advice.
All the families recorded their food intake over four-day periods, twice a year. Those records showed that the children in the families that got counseling consistently consumed 2 percent to 3 percent fewer calories than those in the other group. They also got 2 percent to 3 percent fewer of their calories from saturated fats.
The benefits of those apparently slight differences showed up in tests done when the children were 11. Ultrasound images of the boys' arteries found those on the low saturated fat diet were better able to widen, allowing blood to flow more freely. The difference was small -- 9.62 percent wider, compared to 8.36 percent wider in the ordinary-diet group -- but it was statistically significant.
No such difference was found for the girls, however. This relative lack of effect in females has been seen in some adult studies, Raitakari noted. "The reason for this is not known, but one explanation could be estrogen," he said. Estrogen, the female sex hormone, influences the number of receptors for LDL cholesterol, the "bad" kind that clogs arteries, Raitakari said.
Analysis of the data indicated that the benefits stemmed from eating the lower saturated fat diet earlier in life, rather than later, the researchers said. That analysis "suggests the importance of early and long-term cholesterol control in influencing vascular function," Raitakari said.
"I need to emphasize that we used a fat-modified diet in our study, not a low-fat diet," Raitakari said. "Children need dietary fat for normal development. But we believe that adopting a diet with low amounts of saturated fats right after weaning would be a good idea that would help maintain healthy arteries in the long run."
The report is the latest in a series on the study. Previous reports showed that starting a low saturated-fat diet early in life did not harm the children's growth or neurological development.
"The message is that a healthy diet early in life potentially has long-term benefits," said Dr. Robert Eckel, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Colorado, and president of the American Heart Association. "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."
For more on healthy low-fat diets, head to the American Heart Association.