It’s never too early to teach children about eating heart-healthy, based on study findings showing that dietary counseling in infancy reduces cardiovascular risk later in life.
Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this study tested the impact of early dietary counseling on risk for developing metabolic syndrome—a cluster of factors that increase risk for heart disease. These days, more individuals are developing metabolic syndrome in childhood, which greatly increases risk for diabetes and heart disease in adulthood. In 1990, researchers launched the Special Turku Coronary Risk Factor Intervention Project (STRIP) to help prevent the development of cardiovascular risk factors beginning in infancy.
Between 1990 and 1992, researchers enrolled 1,062 infants around 5 months old into the study. Half of the infants were randomly assigned to receive dietary counseling until the age of 20, emphasizing the importance of limiting saturated fat, reducing salt intake, watching portion sizes, and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Counseling on smoking prevention also started when participants turned 8. Participants not assigned to such counseling received standard care that all children typically receive.
Throughout the 20-year study, researchers regularly collected data on important cardiovascular risk factors such as waist circumference, blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol and blood sugar. After analysis, they found that between the ages of 15 and 20, participants receiving dietary counseling had nearly half the risk of developing metabolic syndrome compared to those receiving standard care. And among key cardiovascular risk factors, counseling helped significantly reduce risk of high blood pressure and high triglycerides.
Findings add to a growing body of evidence supporting early interventions to help children adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors and reduce cardiovascular risk later in life. Research suggests that before preschool, children develop important habits that are not easily reversed later in life. As such, it’s likely that counseling beginning in infancy and continuing through adolescence could have a meaningful impact in reducing risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases.