Each year the time comes for your child’s well-child visit with the pediatrician. You eagerly await the moment when the doctor says, “Everything looks great!” For a growing number of parents, however, that moment is spoiled a few days later by a phone call from the doctor. Shortly after the 10-year-old checkup, you may get the news that your child has high cholesterol.
What once was only a concern for middle-aged and older adults is now a very real problem for young children as well. Most pediatricians check for it at the 10-year-old visit, and parents are shocked when they find out it is affecting their child.
At Portland Pediatric and Family Nutrition, we understand how unnerving this can be, and we are here to help. We view your child’s nutrition with a holistic, mindful approach that is backed by rigorous science and education. We can work with your family to navigate this bump in your child’s nutritional journey.
How Did My Child End Up With High Cholesterol?
Hearing a doctor tell you that your child has elevated levels of cholesterol can send parents into a frenzy of worry and guilt. But this is something you and your child can respond to successfully with some changes and new habits. First, let’s make sure you have accurate information about cholesterol to get started.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is supposed to be in your body. It is a waxy type of lipid that is necessary to build cells. The liver produces 80% of the cholesterol your body needs and 20% is from dietary sources such as fish, meat, butter and eggs.
Consuming cholesterol is not bad. But when there is too much cholesterol in the blood, it can lead to plaque buildup, hardening of the arteries, and blood clots.
How Is High Cholesterol Diagnosed?
High cholesterol doesn’t create symptoms you can see and identify. So the pediatrician will take a blood sample to test your child’s cholesterol. The results will give the pediatrician a good picture of your child’s blood cholesterol levels. They will look at:
- Total cholesterol – This number tells the doctor how much cholesterol is in your child’s blood.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – This is the “bad cholesterol. It tends to raise the most concern when the numbers are high.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – This is the “good cholesterol” that helps remove LDL from the blood.
- Triglycerides – These are a type of fat that can lead to build-up in the arteries, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
What Causes High Cholesterol in Kids?
If your child receives a diagnosis of high cholesterol, they are not alone. High cholesterol impacts about 7% of children and teens ages 6-19. Several factors can lead to elevated cholesterol levels in children:
- Modern Western Diet – Because western diets rely heavily on animal products, even young children can have high cholesterol in their blood. Meat, eggs, and dairy products, snack foods all contribute to this. These foods are high in saturated fats or trans fats, which create an unhealthy situation for your child’s arteries and heart. Saturated and trans fats are the biggest worry when it comes to controlling cholesterol levels.
- Modern Sedentary Lifestyle – A lack of movement, along with extensive daily screen time, can contribute to weight gain. Excessive weight can lead to high cholesterol for children and adults.
- Heredity – A family history of high cholesterol puts your child at a much higher risk of having elevated levels as well. When there is a significant genetic component at play, many pediatricians will check cholesterol levels for a child as young as two years old.
How Do I Treat My Child’s High Cholesterol?
Although it is scary to hear that your child has high cholesterol, there is actually a lot of good news here. Since doctors now check these levels in young children, it gives you a chance to help your child build healthy practices that will serve them throughout their life. With the right food choices and some new lifestyle habits, your child’s cholesterol levels can return to a healthy range.
As you look to help your child on this journey, here are four tips to keep in mind.
1. Go heavy on the plants.
No, you do not have to force your child into a vegan lifestyle. But it is essential to offer them plenty of fruits and vegetables each day. These powerhouse foods are rich in antioxidants and soluble fiber, key ingredients in lowering LDL. Aim for five servings a day for everyone in the family. And if this sounds daunting, keep in mind that a child’s serving size isn’t enormous. Depending on their age, one banana may count as two servings!
Introduce plant-based proteins into your child’s diet as well. Beans and nuts are great options for protein that won’t raise cholesterol levels. If you have a picky eater that resists new foods, we can help. We can guide your child to enjoy different food options as they build healthier habits.
2. Stop the mindless munching.
Many American adults and children consume a significant amount of their daily calories while sitting in front of a screen. This mindless distracted snacking is a common side effect of spending hours looking at a television, computer, or mobile device.
This habit is widespread and dangerous. It stops your child from recognizing their body’s satiety signals, and they end up eating much more than necessary. And typical kid-friendly snacks tend to be high in added sugars and saturated fats, linked with and increase in cholesterol and triglycerides.
3. Choose more heart-healthy fats.
Include more foods with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These nutrients can help lower your child’s LDL. Nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocados, olive oil, flaxseed, and salmon are all excellent sources of these heart-healthy fats. Offer your child snacks and meals that are free of saturated fats and trans fats. The whole family will benefit from this shift in eating habits.
4. Add in more family movement.
Finding out that your child has high cholesterol does not mean you need to sign them up at a gym. Simple changes can add significant movement into your child’s day.
Consider adding a family walk each evening after dinner rather than watching a show. Maybe you can find a local fundraiser walk to join as a family. You can get some exercise and support a cause you care about at the same time.
Check out geocaching or letterboxing for a fun activity the whole family can enjoy. It’s like a treasure hunt each time!
Get an Expert on Your Child’s Team
All of these tips will help your child achieve and maintain a healthy weight and appropriate cholesterol levels. Although these steps are simple to understand, they can be challenging to implement on your own.
Reach out today to make an appointment with us at Portland Pediatric and Family Nutrition. Our gentle, non-judgemental approach to pediatric nutrition will guide your family to sustainable choices and habits that will serve your child for a lifetime.