Medical research shows that heart disease and stroke have their roots in childhood. More pediatricians are screening lipid and cholesterol values in children, especially if there’s a family history of high cholesterol or early heart disease (early, meaning if the onset happens before 55 in men and 65 in women) in parents or grandparents. Also, with the increase in childhood obesity, more kids are at risk for problems with fat and sugar metabolism that affect cholesterol.
Cholesterol gets a bad reputation sometimes. Cholesterol is a critical ingredient for many things we need to live like cell membranes and vitamins and hormones. But it is a waxy substance that doesn’t mix very well with water, and humans are made up of about 70% water.
Every cell in the body knows how to make cholesterol, that is how important it is for us to live. If you never ate any cholesterol, your body would still make enough to run smoothly. Only some cholesterol comes from animal foods we eat, like egg yolks, meat, fish or dairy. Some cholesterol gets made from fat and sugars in the diet.
The levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in our blood depend on how much fat and cholesterol our bodies eat and make, how they are packaged, and how well they get in and out of our cells. Some of this is determined by genes we inherit. Moving muscles activate pathways important for packaging the fats and cholesterols in our diets healthfully. Eating right AND exercising is synergistic, not additive!
Cholesterol Lipoprotein Packages –
All of your body’s cholesterol and triglyceride is broken in three main kinds of interconnected lipoproteins described by their density (how much they weigh for their size).
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are the primary cholesterol carriers. If there’s too much LDL in the bloodstream, it can build up on the walls of the arteries that lead to the heart and the brain. This buildup forms plaque – a thick, hard substance that can cause blood vessels to become stiffer, narrower, or blocked.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) carry extra cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s processed and sent out of the body. It can even help remove cholesterol from already formed plaques.
Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) don’t carry too much cholesterol but have a lot of triglycerides so are only elevated when there is a problem processing fats and triglyceride levels build up too high.
Your doctor can help decide whether to have your child’s cholesterol level checked and what the results mean. Typically children who are physically active, eat healthy foods, don’t have a family history of high LDL or triglycerides (VLDL) and/or low HDL, and aren’t overweight probably aren’t at risk for cholesterol problems.
Here are some ways to help keep your family’s lipid and cholesterol packages at healthy levels:
- Know your own cholesterol level, and if it’s high, ask to have your kids checked.
- Serve a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, foods naturally high in fiber and loaded with nutrient value.
- Choose lean meats and flexitarian protein alternatives, including fish, legumes (dried beans, peas, and lentils), and tofu or other soy products.
- Limit solid saturated and especially trans-fat intake. Instead, choose healthy unsaturated fats from fish, nuts, and olive and canola vegetable oils.
- Avoid sugary drinks including juice. Try to always eat, rather than drink your fruit. Drink lots of water and low-fat milk (unless your doctor instructs you otherwise).
- Limit foods with added sugars and commercially prepared highly processed foods. Make most of your grain’s fiber-rich whole grains.
- Get plenty of exercise. Children 2 years of age and older and teens should be physically active at least 60 minutes a day.