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American Heart Health month happens each year in February and is an important reminder to be mindful of heart health. But the reminder shouldn’t end there! Our hope is that the focus on heart health will carry your family throughout the rest of the year, forming lifelong healthy habits. 

Though this is an important reminder for all ages, a lifetime of healthy eating starts early in childhood. By instilling healthy habits in kids, they will be more likely to continue them into adulthood and decrease the risk for heart disease later on.

Here are a few nutritious ways to celebrate heart health month that can last a lifetime

Focus on Healthy Fats

Though there are fats that should be limited, healthy fats can actually help promote a healthy diet.  According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a diet high in healthy fats (i.e. “omega-3s” and “omega-6s”) has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Fish, nuts, avocados, and seeds are all excellent sources of healthy fats but there are other delicious ways to get these fats in your diet.

You can get creative when it comes to introducing healthy fats into your diet, like using nut or avocado oil or sprinkling seeds on cereal or in yogurt.

While getting good fats is important, it’s also recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) to limit saturated and unsaturated fats.

Here are some ways to do just that: 

  • Maintain a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts. Also limit red meat as well as sugary foods and beverages.
  • Opt for naturally occurring unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil.
  • Look for processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than saturated fat or hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils.
  • Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms. Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes are examples of foods high in trans fat. Don’t eat them often.
  • Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These foods are very high in fat, and it’s likely to be trans fat.
  • Limit fried fast food. Commercial shortening and deep-frying fats are still made by hydrogenation and contain saturated and trans fats.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

A diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables is always good for heart health and nutrition. Fruits and vegetables have an abundance of nutrients key to healthy development. The challenge is learning how to make them taste good for kids to be open to eating them. Especially with picky eaters, this can seem impossible at times. The good news is that even with the pickiest of eaters, by encouraging them to try new foods, and experimenting with new foods alongside your child, better habits will form, even if it takes some time. 

By modeling good eating habits, you can better encourage your child. The key, for kids especially, is to make them taste good. There are so many ways to make vegetables flavorful and even fun.

A great resource is the Fruit and Veggie Tool Kit from American Heart Association which shares healthy eating patterns for kids of all ages, serving sizes broken down for kids in an “easy to digest” way, recipes, and even activities for kids! 

Keep Cholesterol Down from the Start

According to the AHA, “High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.” While these problems primarily affect adults, forming healthy habits in childhood is an important step to maintaining health later on.

Instilling healthy habits early, makes it more likely that your kids will eat foods with soluble fiber later, such as beans. peas, barley and oats. Try adding beans to a pasta dish, roast them or add them to soup. Whole grains have more soluble fiber as well.

Make Exercise a Family Matter

The AHA states that “Only about one in five adults and teens get enough exercise to maintain good health. Being more active can help all people think, feel and sleep better and perform daily tasks more easily.” 

There are so many ways to get active, and getting physically active as a family it can be both a great motivator and a bonding exercise. Getting active also doesn’t have to come at a cost of both time and money as there are so many ways to stay active in a creative way. Workout using online workout videos as a family, and you can even have the kids choose which video to use. Make an obstacle course at home, have a dance party, or play sports with family. These are all great and fun ways to increase activity to promote better heart health.

For some general guidelines on physical activity for kids, the AHA recommends:

  • Children 3-5 years old should be physically active and have plenty of opportunities to move throughout the day.
  • Kids 6-17 years old should get at least 60 minutes per day of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity, mostly aerobic.
  • Include vigorous-intensity activity on at least 3 days per week.
  • Include muscle- and bone-strengthening (weight-bearing) activities on at least 3 days per week.
  • Increase amount and intensity gradually over time.

As February ends, choose to make this Heart Health month count by choosing to making small, gradual changes in the direction of a more healthy lifestyle!