by Ana-Maria Temple, M.D.
When a middle-aged, thin adult comes to the hospital with heart attack symptoms, the doctors will ask about family health history; alcohol, drug and cigarette use; current medications; and cholesterol levels. But because the person is thin, they may not question their diet. In reality, the food choices we’ve made since childhood may determine our likelihood of developing heart disease as adults. Heart-healthy diets for kids can establish a healthful baseline and set them on a path to lifelong wellness and longevity.
Studies have demonstrated that the development of coronary atherosclerosis begins in childhood. These findings have been replicated in studies of children of different ethnic backgrounds across the globe. Characterized by the deposition of fatty material (plaques) on the inner walls of arteries, atherosclerosis contributes to heart disease and heart attacks.
The immediate reaction may be to blame genetics for heart disease in young children and assume it is outside of our control, but this assumption would be wrong. Genetics are only a blueprint. What we eat, how we sleep, our stress level and our exposure to environmental toxins determine how our house is built. “Genetics load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger,” wrote Judith Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California, Davis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, epigenetics is the study of how our behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center demonstrated the effects of genetic malleability in a study involving agouti mice, which are genetically engineered to produce obese offspring that develop heart disease, diabetes and cancers. The scientists fed two groups of these unhealthy mice different diets. One group ate standard mouse food. The other consumed standard mouse food plus vitamin supplements, including choline, folic acid, B12 and betaine.
The agouti mice mothers that were given a vitamin-supplemented diet produced offspring that were healthy, without evidence of heart disease or other problems, while the mice that ate a regular diet without nutritional supplementation continued to produce terribly unhealthy mice. What humans can surmise from this study is that parents have the power to alter their children’s gene expression and subsequent heart disease risk.
To raise healthy adults, a child’s nutrition is where to start. As Mark Hyman, M.D., an internationally recognized leader in the field of functional medicine says, “Chronic disease is a food-borne illness,” and one of the biggest dietary culprits is sugar. It leads to the development of plaque in the arteries and wreaks havoc on the health of Americans. In the 1980s, the low-fat craze prompted food companies to remove fat from foods and replace it with sugar to preserve taste. A whopping 240 sugar alternatives followed, including corn syrup, rice syrup and dextrose.
The liver can process only 24 grams of added sugar per day. Any extra sugar gets turned into fat, which contributes to the development of atherosclerotic plaques. In the U.S., adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day, according to the American Heart Association. That’s more than three times the amount the liver can handle.
Parents can begin to shield their children from this dangerous ingredient by steering them away from sugary drinks. We all know that sodas are full of sugar, but even organic juice boxes, sports drinks, flavored waters and coconut waters contain loads of the stuff. Choose water or coconut water without added sugar, and wean kids off of juice by gradually diluting it. Also consider fruit-infused waters or bubbly, carbonated water with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Start reading food labels and encourage kids to become sugar detectives. It is not about categorizing food as evil or bad. It’s about learning together which foods and drinks help their little hearts become stronger and more resilient. When they grow up to be heart-healthy, middle-aged adults, they will be thankful.
Ana-Maria Temple is an integrative pediatrician and wellness educator in Charlotte, North Carolina. Learn more at DrAnaMaria.com.
This article was originally published in Natural Awakenings magazine, February 2023 edition.