In a bright note in the fight for a healthier America, an enormous study found cholesterol levels have lowered in kids. Unfortunately, childhood obesity rates still remain high.
The National Heart Blood and Lung Institute (NHBLI) funded study, which was published in JAMA, surveyed 26,047 kids over a lengthy time span: 1999-2016. Ranging in age from nine-16 years of age, the kids’ cholesterol levels were followed. Overall, the levels of unhealthy cholesterol scores went down.
“High cholesterol in childhood is one of the key risk factors for developing heart disease later in life,” Dr. Amanda Marma Perak, assistant professor of pediatric cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine said of the study, which she co-authored.
Perak, who’s also on staff at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago continued, “Although we see favorable trends in all measures of cholesterol in children and adolescents over the years, we still need to work harder to ensure that many more kids have healthy cholesterol levels. We know high cholesterol is the critical initiator of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, and even in childhood it is associated with these changes in the blood vessels that can lead to heart attack in adulthood.”
What High Cholesterol Means
Cholesterol is in the blood. It’s naturally produced by the liver. This waxy, fatty substance (lipid) helps the body produce hormones, fat-soluble vitamins and bile acids that help with digestion. The body produces all the cholesterol it needs, but an unhealthy diet can lead to more than is healthy. Once an unhealthy trend begins, like early in childhood, it’s hard to get it back on track.
There are two types of cholesterol: LDL and HDL. LDL is considered the “bad” type, because in high levels it’s the one that produces plaque that can build up inside arteries and eventually block them, leading to cardiovascular disease.
For children, ideal cholesterol numbers are under 170, with LDL numbers under 110. High is 200 or greater, with LDL 130 or greater.
According to the survey, 7% of children had high cholesterol from 2009-2016, which is down from 10% a decade earlier.
The Trans Fat Ban Might Be Why
The reason for the cholesterol score drop isn’t a mystery. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, it’s probably due to the trans fat ban.
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that artificial trans fats were unsafe to eat. It gave food manufacturers until June 18, 2018 to remove them from food products. Originally touted as healthy fat substitutes for fats like butter, partially hydrogenated oils are now known to cause higher cholesterol levels.
The three year transition period let many manufacturers get ahead of the game by phasing trans fats out early, ahead of the deadline.
Thus, a lot of the trans fat-laden snack foods kids love became healthier; they might have still been consuming them, but sans the cholesterol-boosting substances. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, by 2018 food companies removed 98% of trans fats from the food supply.
Less Trans Fats Doesn’t Mean Lower Calories
Getting rid of a faulty fat source doesn’t mean that snacks are suddenly less calorie-laden. Kids are still eating sugar and fat-loaded foods, and child obesity rates remain high.
According to the site State of Obesity, which consolidates and displays weight data, kids are heavy.
“The latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that the national obesity rate among youth ages two to 19 is 18.5%. The rate varies among different age groups, with rates rising along with age. While overall obesity rates remain higher than they were a generation ago, the rise in rates has slowed in recent years, following decades of sharp increases starting in the early 1970s.”
And boys, particularly Latino boys, are the heaviest, at 28%.
“Boys are slightly more likely to have obesity than girls. In 2015-2016, 19.1% of boys had obesity and 17.8% of girls ages two to 19 had obesity. Between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, the obesity rate of boys went up 11%, while the percentage of girls with obesity increased by 4%.”
Worried? Get Your Child Tested
Measuring cholesterol is simple, involving a single blood test. According to Kids Health, cholesterol should be tested once at nine-11 years of age, and again between the ages of 17-21.
Other factors? How’s your cholesterol level? Sometimes high cholesterol is hereditary, and sometimes it’s related to lifestyle. If your cholesterol is high, you might want to check your child’s, as well.
If the following risk factors for high cholesterol are present in your family or child, and your child is over two years old, you should get them tested:
- A parent, or other close relative, has a total cholesterol higher than 240 mg/dL
- There’s a family history of cardiovascular disease before age 55 in men, and age 65 in women
- They have other medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, Kawasaki disease, or juvenile idiopathic arthritis)
- If they’re overweight or obese
Steps to Improving Your Child’s Cholesterol Levels
If your child’s cholesterol level is high, there are some simple steps you can take to improve it.
First, change your diet to one that’s heart healthy. Prepare foods with healthier fats like olive oil. While trans fats have mostly been removed from public consumption, keeping animal fats, like butter, low is a good idea. Include omega-3 rich fish and nuts, known cholesterol busters, in diets.
Serving whole, rather than processed foods will help, as well. Cutting down on high sugar foods, such as soda, candy, and desserts, is another good rule of thumb.
Finally, encourage exercise, which can lead to weight loss. Rally the entire family and make it fun.
If none of these things work to lower your child’s cholesterol, you may need to explore medical options.
“Medicine might be considered for kids 10 and older whose LDL cholesterol is 190 mg/dL or higher if changes in diet and exercise haven’t worked,” Kid’s Health informs. “Kids with risk factors, such as diabetes or high blood pressure or a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, may need treatment at lower LDL levels.”