By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
I often encouraged patients who had suffered heart attacks to bring their children with them to my office so that I could utilize the parent’s unfortunate situation as a teaching moment. I wanted to help instill the message of a healthy lifestyle in the young peoples’ psyches. We are never totally certain about the extent with which genetics play a role in disease, but to the extent that there is a predisposition, it is important to reduce that influence through healthy living. And even if genetics doesn’t play a role, lifestyle certainly does.
I have always nagged my patients about the need to foster a healthy lifestyle in order to minimize and reverse their ailments. For many of them, it was a real struggle. My message to them, and the kids who came, was always the same: Prevention is always easier. Much easier.
It’s Never Too Late or Too Early for Healthy Living
I also told my patients that it’s never too late to start a healthy lifestyle, even if you are someone in your seventies and eighties. And, for sure, it’s never too early. Clearly, “as early as possible” is the best time to incorporate healthy habits into your routine. Anti-aging and prevention actually can actually start in the womb and early childhood, as research clearly shows.
Several studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition make a strong case for healthier food choices by moms-to-be and mothers of toddlers. Children naturally prefer sweet and salty tastes and shy away from healthier fare, however, they can be distinctly influenced by maternal food decisions and the home environment. (And grandparents…you’re not off the hook here… even though you may love the reactions you get by giving sweet treats, you also can play a role in setting your loved ones up for a healthier lifestyle.)
One study showed that moms-to-be who consume healthy foods help their children get off to a healthier start because the flavors are transmitted from the maternal diet to the amniotic fluid and mother’s milk. Moreover, breastfed infants are more accepting of these flavors. By contrast, infants who are fed formula learn to prefer its unique flavors and may have a harder time initially with flavors not found in formula, such as those in fruits and vegetables. The researchers also noted, “Regardless of early feeding mode, infants can learn through repeated exposure and dietary variety if caregivers focus on the child’s willingness to consume a food and not just the facial expressions made during feeding.” Just keep offering healthy choices, parents, grandparents, and nannies…hopefully they will become acquired tastes.
Another study endorses the view that the home environment is the major factor influencing children’s attraction to energy-dense (sugary) foods that cause excessive weight gain. A third study concludes that by the time youngsters reach the age of two, they have essentially completed the transition to ‘table foods’ and are consuming diets similar to other family members.
The importance of healthy food intake at an early age is reinforced by another study showing that excess consumption of sweets, in the form of added sugars from processed foods, can generate the beginnings of cardiovascular risks among children aged seven to twelve. Specifically, the researchers from the University of Colorado noted, increased intake of added sugars resulted in elevated blood pressure and triglycerides (a blood fat).
The message in these studies is loud and clear. Mothers need to raise their own food awareness and intake because their decisions can influence the preferences of their children, even unborn children. A woman who eats a good deal of processed food throughout pregnancy, and serves such food to very young children, is setting up preferences and habits that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems later on.
Moms: You need to set the table, so to speak, for your kids by adopting healthy food habits yourself and early on. You have to be a role model, even for the unborn. Visit the Diet & Nutrition section of this site for lots of healthy living tips to help you do so (My PAMM Diet is a good one to get started with).
Fit Teenagers Reduce Heart Attack Risk Later in Life
Researchers in Sweden discovered in 2014 that a high level of fitness as a teenager is associated with a reduced risk of having a heart attack 30 or 40 years later in life. Their conclusion was based on analyzing an average of 34 years of data from more than 620,000 men from the time they first underwent medical examinations and fitness tests as eighteen-year-old draftees in the Swedish army.
The researchers’ findings were based on looking at the aerobic fitness data of the draftees, sorting individuals into five categories of fitness (from low to high), and then searching for cardiovascular events in later life. There were some 7,575 heart attacks during the total follow-up years. Compared with men at the highest level of fitness at age 18, the individuals with the lowest level had just over twice the risk of heart attack.
The study, published in the European Heart Journal, was said to be the first to investigate the link between objective measurements of physical fitness among teenagers and the risk of heart attack decades later in life.
As a teenager, I participated in the school wrestling and football programs, and put a good deal of attention on my fitness level. So I relate to this study. It’s an important confirmation of trouble ahead as a result of physical inactivity. It is well documented that sedentary living and poor food choices contribute to the growing incidence of diabetes among adolescents, and the association with the beginnings of arterial disease in adolescents goes back more than a half-century.
If you have teenagers, the message here is obvious. Even if your child is far from an all-star, the benefits of having fun and memorable experiences, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and making friendships are available to all who participate. Encourage your kids to get involved in some kind of regular physical activity, whether it is on a recreational or organized basis.
Are Young Adults Clueless? The Evidence Isn’t Encouraging
Two studies at Northwestern University show that college students and young adults in general have little knowledge about healthy eating and are putting themselves at risk for disease later in life.
In the first study, researchers followed more than 3,500 originally healthy young adults (starting age 18 to 30) for 20 years and over that time looked at 5 positive lifestyle factors: not overweight or obese, low alcohol intake, healthy diet, physically active, and not smoking. Healthy lifestyle changes during young adulthood are linked to decreased risk of arterial disease in middle age. Unhealthy habits are linked to increased risk. While the benefits of healthy living are well-known, it had been unclear whether making health behavior changes as an adult can still alter coronary artery disease risk.
The second study found that the majority of college students engage in unhealthy behaviors that can increase their risk of cancer later on in life. A startling 95 percent of students fail to eat the recommended five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables and more than 60 percent don’t get adequate physical activity ─ at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity 3 or more days a week or at least 5 days with a half-hour of moderate exercise. The worst results were among racial minorities, especially African Americans and Native Americans.
The findings were not surprising. Lifestyle is clearly ─ without any doubt ─ related to health. Eating poorly and leading a sedentary lifestyle leads right to health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
These studies bring to light a glaring deficit in nutritional education that should start at home and be reinforced at school. Whenever I observe young people these days they seem to always be drinking a can of soda, the worst kind of junk food they could choose, and emblematic of overall poor food choices. No wonder there is so much unwellness already among young people.
Young adults may not have the awareness to know what an anti-inflammatory diet is, but even among the typical fare offered in fast food restaurants they can make better choices. That’s why I wrote The Fast Food Diet. What young people and their parents may not realize, is that the habits that lead to early unwellness will also lead to later on unwellness and disease unless people wise up. I hope parents are reading these healthy living tips. The fact is that prevention and anti-aging strategies need to become a way of life…and very early in life. Otherwise you’ll be visiting the doctor earlier in life than you should. Remember what I said at the outset of this article: prevention is always easier than a cure.
Want to learn to eat more healthfully at home? Watch my Healthy Cooking Videos, where my son, Step, and I show you how to make our favorite meals and snacks while explaining the health benefits associated with regularly consuming them.
Read articles in the Anti-Aging section, here at HMDI, especially 10 Don’ts and Dos for a Longer Life.
Visit Drsinatra.com and read:
- Cholesterol Testing and Statins for Kids? Medicine’s Run Amok
- Healthy Blood Pressure: How to Help Our Kids
- Mennella JA. Ontogeny of taste preferences: basic biology and implications for health. Am J Clin Nutr Mar. 2014 ajcn.067694 [Abstract.]
- Fildes A, van Jaarsveld C, et. al. Nature and nurture in children’s food preferences. Am J Clin Nutr. Apr. 2014;99(4):911-917 [Abstract.]
- Birch LL, Doub AE. Learning to eat: birth to age 2y. Am J Clin Nutr Mar. 2014 ajcn.069047. [Abstract.]
- Kell KP, Cardel MI, et. al. Added sugars in the diet are positively associated with diastolic blood pressure and triglycerides in children. Am J Clin Nutr. Jun. 2014 ajcn.076505 [Abstract.]
- Högström G, Nordström A, Nordström P. High aerobic fitness in late adolescence is associated with a reduced risk of myocardial infarction later in life: a nationwide cohort study in men. Eur Heart J (2014) doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/eht527. [Abstract.]
- Spring B, Moller AC, et. al. Healthy Lifestyle Change and Subclinical Atherosclerosis in Young Adults: Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study. CIRCULATIONAHA.113.005445 Published online before print April 28, 2014, doi: 10.1161/ [Abstract.]
- Kang J, Ciecierski CC, et. al. A latent class analysis of cancer risk behaviors among U.S. college students. Prev Med. 2014 Jul;64C:121-125. [Abstract.]
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