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HEALTH MATTERS: Start young to be healthy

Gerald F. Combs, Jr.

Start young to be healthy

Did you know that children can have risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes?  

Studies show that even early in life, elevations in total blood serum cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein “bad” cholesterol (LDL) — both associated with heart-disease risk — can occur. Adolescents with these changes face high risks of the inflammation, plaque and stiffness of artery walls known as atherosclerotic disease as they age. In fact, many young adults have been found to have advanced coronary atherosclerotic plaques.

Obesity contributes to these and related health effects. Research has revealed strong relationships between being overweight and having high blood pressure, elevated serum lipids and impaired insulin function. Obese children are more likely to have impaired arterial stiffness and higher blood pressure than their lean counterparts. Obesity and high intake of saturated fat is associated with impaired insulin function, which increases risk for developing type 2 diabetes. 

The good news is that these early risks can be reduced. The American Heart Association recommends two practical steps to a healthy lifestyle. These can be started as early as age 2.

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet: One that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low- and nonfat dairy products, beans, fish, lean meats and poultry. This diet is low in saturated fats, trans-fats and cholesterol, and has few added sugars and salt.
  • Move regularly: At least 30 minutes (60 minutes for children older than 6) of vigorous play or aerobic exercise 3 to 5 times each week. This includes biking, running, jumping rope, basketball, swimming, tennis, cross-country skiing, soccer or hockey.

Studies have demonstrated that these practices are effective in reducing a child’s LDL and cholesterol levels while supporting their healthy growth and development. Plus, in overweight children, regular physical activity lowers the total body fat and, particularly, abdominal fat. Eating healthy and exercising can also reduce inflammation, increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) “good” cholesterol and improve insulin function.

Helping children get active play can be an effective way to help them maintain healthy body weight and reduce their heart-disease risk. This usually means limiting to less than 2 hours each day their time spent watching TV, playing video games, texting, surfing the Internet or talking on the phone. Such sedentary pursuits compete directly with active play, particularly in adolescence by claiming more time. Health benefits of physical activity have been found to be greatest in tandem with a healthy diet.

Parents and caregivers can play key roles by making healthy choices for their children and by teaching children to make healthy choices for themselves. Helpful information, including five simple steps to success in being physically active can be found at That site also provides useful information about healthy eating and more useful information about foods and great ideas about how to prepare healthy meals are available at: This includes easy-to-follow tips on putting together healthy meals for children and on smart shopping.

Remember, you can be a healthy role model for your children.

Combs is the Director of the USDA Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. He is an Adjunct Professor at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.