With February being National Heart Month, parents have been pumping me about their children’s heart health. Let me get to the heart of the matter and talk about the prevention of heart disease, beginning in childhood.

Heart disease is the number-one killer of men and women in the U.S. There are risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a heart problem. They include high blood pressure, being overweight or obese, being physically inactive, and having a high blood-level of cholesterol. All of these can begin to develop in childhood.

A family history of these factors can put someone at an even greater, possibly earlier, risk for heart disease.

So, what can we do to reduce the risk of heart disease in children?

1. Reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your child’s diet as early as age 2. This can reduce the chances of developing hypertension, high cholesterol or obesity. The American Heart Association recommends poultry, fish, lean meat, low-fat dairy (like skim or 2 percent milk) and limited egg consumption. Reading food labels can ensure that the foods you buy are heart healthy.

2. Another way to stay heart healthy is to serve foods low in salt. Salt use is an acquired taste that can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Use other herbs, spices, and even lemon juice to make a dish tasty. Consider not having the salt shaker on the table, which is easier said than done.

3. Ask about blood pressure and weight measurements during your child’s checkups. You can work with their health-care professional to make changes in their diet or lifestyle to reduce those risks.

Hopefully, tips like these won’t miss a beat when it comes to keeping your family heart healthy, beginning in childhood.

Dr. Lewis First is chief of pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

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