How to Naturally Lower Cholesterol Levels in Children
I have good news and bad news. First the good news: According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cholesterol levels among U.S. kids have improved from 1999 to 2016.
And now the bad news: Only half of the 26,000 children and youth between 6 and 19 years old who were included in the study were in the ideal range, with 25% having a cholesterol level that is considered clinically high. For children and adolescents, ideal measures include total cholesterol at less than 170 mg/dL, LDL (or “bad” cholesterol) at less than 110 mg/dL and HDL (or “good” cholesterol) at greater than 45 mg/dL. These levels are associated with better long-term health. According to the American Heart Association, a total cholesterol level greater than 200mg/dl and LDL cholesterol greater than 130mg/dl may require drug intervention.
Risk Factors for High Cholesterol
- High cholesterol levels run in your family.
- Being overweight.
- A diet high in saturated and trans fat.
Children diagnosed with high cholesterol levels are at a greater risk for developing early onset heart disease and for suffering a heart attack as an adult. Fortunately though, lifestyle changes, such as such as eating a healthier diet and increasing physical activity, can help improve cholesterol levels. Honestly, these are the same things we should already be doing for the entire family anyway: stay active and eat plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains and omega-3-rich foods.
1. Stay active.
As many schools no longer offer daily recess, more and more children are not getting any daily physical activity. And if your child has no interest in sports, then they probably aren’t getting active after school either. In that case, try and set an example. Organizing weekend family walks, hikes, bike rides and limiting their overall screen time can be a good place to start. The younger your child starts engaging in physical activity, of any amount, the more chance they’ll stick with it as they get older.
2. Eat plenty of fiber-rich fruits and veggies.
Trust me, I know kids can be picky. But remember who is in charge of the household. That’s right, you! Once again, you need to be the role model. If you don’t eat or serve healthy meals, how can you expect your child to? Take your kids food shopping with you and let them choose what fruits and veggies they want. Also have them join you in the kitchen to help prepare a veggie for the meal, such as peeling or washing. Keep in mind that children’s taste buds are constantly changing; so, if they refuse to eat something one day don’t give up because weeks later, they could love it.
3. Include 100% whole grains in your diet.
Whole grains are good sources of fiber, and research has shown that soluble fiber may help lower cholesterol levels. Experiment early with introducing your child to different grains, such as oats, quinoa, barley, brown rice and whole wheat couscous. I’ve been making my granddaughter oatmeal with milk, peanut butter and banana since she was almost two years old (now she’s four) and she loves it! Try mixing whole-wheat pasta with white pasta for the extra fiber. When my daughter was young, and she was a picky eater indeed, she named this “two-color” pasta; and as long as it came with her favorite marinara sauce, she ate it with no complaints.
4. Limit fatty foods.
As much as your child might request baked goods and visits to their favorite fast food joint, limit processed foods that contain trans fats and high amounts of saturated fats. Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association, the primary dietary source for trans fats in processed food is partially hydrogenated oils. Vegetable shortening, certain varieties of microwave popcorn, fried fast foods and bakery products are the biggest culprits.
5. Add omega-3s.
We hear a lot about the importance of omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, and studies have associated them a host of health benefits, which include lowering heart disease risk. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish two times a week (a serving is 3.5 ounces). Fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon and herring, are particularly rich in omega-3s. Keep in mind that children should avoid eating fish with high mercury levels – for example, shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. Canned light tuna, sardines and salmon are good choices. Most kids I know love a tuna-fish sandwich, and weirdly enough as a kid I loved canned sardines. You could also buy products fortified with omega-3s, such as orange juice, eggs and yogurt.
Not sure if your child has worrisome cholesterol levels? Talk with your pediatrician. According to the latest guidelines from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, all youth should have their cholesterol checked at ages 9 to 11 years and again at 17 to 21 years.