Cholesterol and Childhood Obesity: Childhood Nutrition Series

Today we explore the 3rd part of the Childhood and Adolescent Nutrition Series – Cholesterol and Childhood Obesity.

You may be thinking you don’t really need to read this post – kids don’t have to worry about high cholesterol, right? The fact is we MUST be concerned – what a child eats today can and will affect their future. We don’t think of cardiovascular disease as being a danger for kids, even though it is one of the most prevalent diseases in the United States.

Here is an alarming statistic, given to us over 25 years ago by the National Cholesterol Education Program’s Expert Panel:

Compelling evidence exists that the atherosclerotic process begins in childhood and progresses slowly into adulthood, at which time it leads frequently to coronary heart disease (CHD), the major cause of death in the U.S.

What is Atherosclerosis?

The atherosclerotic process is essentially hardening of the arteries, or plaque formation. Plaque tissue that builds up on the artery walls is not healthy tissue. It cracks, bleeds and can form blood clots which can then completely block an artery, which then can result in a heart attack or stroke. There are generally no symptoms of atherosclerosis as it develops. Sadly, the first symptom for 30-40% of people is a fatal heart attack.

We have already learned that teaching kids at a very young age how to eat healthy is crucial for many things. We have a further obligation to encourage our kids to avoid a diet that is high in fat, especially saturated fat, trans fats and cholesterol.

Click here to get a refresher on fats and cholesterol.

Lowering cholesterol in kids is truly a challenging but crucial public health goal. Children that have a genetic history of cholesterol and/or coronary heart disease are at risk. Experts do not recommend universal screening of cholesterol for children, however some populations may need screening. Unfortunately, roughly 25% of kids today consume more than the current dietary recommendations for total fat and saturated fat intake.

Replacing trans fats and saturated fats in children’s diet is key. Processed foods contain high levels of trans fat. Cutting these foods out of our diets as much as possible will help greatly. Other recommendations, particularly for elementary school kids and adolescents include:

  • serve a variety of cereals, especially whole grains
  • offer a variety of fruits and juices (watch the added sugar!)
  • substitute margarine for butter
  • serve lower-fat dairy products such as skim or 1% fat milk
  • offer whole grain muffins, bagels, toast, etc
  • cook omelettes or scrambled eggs using more egg whites, less yolks
  • serve non-fat or low-fat yogurt

Diet and physical activity are so important for children to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

Childhood Obesity

Another scary fact for you: obesity is the most widespread nutrition-related disease of children and adolescents in the United States.


Kids that are obese are very much at risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Adults that are trying to achieve weight loss goals will often track their BMI – Body Mass Index. This measurement is also very important for kids. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines overweight as a BMI that is between the 85th and 95th percentile (Read more here). Obesity is further defined as anything over the 95th percentile. The term obesity actually refers to an excess of body fat in relation to lean muscle mass. In other words, an athletic child may fall into the 95th percentile of BMI but is not actually obese because his extra weight is more lean body mass rather than fat.

Over the years, childhood obesity has increased dramatically. Society has changed and our diets have changed along with it (Read more about that here). Parents are working outside the home, working longer hours. There have been changes to school food programs, giving kids access to higher fat, higher sugar foods and drinks. More meals are being eaten outside the home. Another factor is the amount of time kids spend watching TV and playing video games. Physical activity is diminished while diet is compromised.

The most common consequence of childhood obesity is not a physical issue – it is psychosocial. Kids who are obese or overweight have low self-esteem and poor body image. Studies have shown the unfortunate reality that kids often ridicule the kids that are obese or overweight. Bullying and body shaming are all too common.

The best treatment for both childhood obesity and high cholesterol is prevention. By educating our kids and providing them with healthy choices, encouraging them to play and be active, we can fight the battle against childhood disease.

If you would like any additional information about cholesterol screening or BMI for children, please contact me. You should always contact your doctor if you have any concerns about your child’s weight.

In our last post for the series, we will talk about food allergies. See you soon!

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