Habits for a Heart-Healthy Preschooler
By the American Heart Association & Nemours OCTOBER 2020
A pressing concern like a global pandemic can quickly overshadow other important health challenges facing families. One such issue is that of childhood obesity, a problem the slower pace of life brought on by COVID-19 could exacerbate.
Numerous cardiovascular and mental health risks are associated with childhood obesity, and many experts expect to see increases in both mental health challenges and obesity as a result of COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity impacts 40% of children between the ages of 2–5, increasing their risk for type 2 diabetes, asthma, and depression.
Data from a study published in the Early Childhood Education Journal from the American Heart Association shows children diagnosed as overweight between 7–13 years old may develop heart disease as early as age 25. However, preventative steps taken in early childhood can help reduce this risk.
Keeping young children healthy while at home during the pandemic requires extra attention to their nutrition, physical activity, and screen time. Programs like the American Heart Association’s Healthy Way to Grow, a national, science-based, early childhood technical assistance program, provide educational resources to help communities, educators, and caregivers improve practices and policies for obesity prevention.
These tips from the program can help early childhood professionals and caregivers promote best practices into the daily lives of children.
Less than 1% of children have ideal diets, and under 10% have reasonably healthy diets, according to the American Heart Association. On any given day, 27% of 2- and 3-year-olds don’t eat a vegetable; among those who do eat a veggie, a green veggie is not among them. Fried white potatoes, which are high in fat and lower in nutrients, are most common. In fact, data shows kids eat less nutritious foods all the way up to age 19!
Children should consume a variety of foods daily, including different types of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and calcium enriched nut or plant milks or reduced fat dairies. Proteins are also important for brain development so choose a non-animal protein source like nuts and beans or a lean animal protein like chicken breast and/or low-mercury seafood. At the same time, kids should minimize trans fats and avoid processed meats (carcinogenic), refined carbohydrates, and sweetened beverages.
Consistently timed meals and pairing new foods with choices they already enjoy are two ways to help form healthier habits. Be aware that healthy choices should apply throughout the day, not only for meals but also snacks and beverages. Eating together as a family provides an opportunity to model healthy eating and encourage children to try new foods. Also make water available and accessible to children throughout the day.
For infants, feeding provides nutrition for their physical and mental growth. Healthy babies usually double their birth weight between 4–5 months of age. Infants and children with congenital heart disease and congestive heart failure or cyanosis (blueness) tend to gain weight slowly. An 8-ounce to a 1-pound gain in a month may be an acceptable weight gain for a baby with a heart defect.
Only about 20% of kids perform enough activity to meet physical activity recommendations. Whether you’re working with children in a childcare setting or at home, look for ways to incorporate lesson plans that offer learning experiences about healthy eating and physical activity, and ensure the daily schedule includes ample active playtime.
The Healthy Way to Grow program recommends all children, including infants, have at least two outdoor active playtimes daily (weather and air quality permitting). Toddlers should engage in 60–90 minutes while 120 minutes of daily active play is recommended for preschoolers. Half the time should be led by a teacher or caregiver while the remaining playtime should be unstructured and up to the child.
Learn more about protecting the health and wellness of children in your home and community at healthywaytogrow.org.