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Heart-Healthy Eating for Children

What is heart-healthy eating?

A diet high in fat in childhood may lead to the development of heart disease as an adult. A heart-healthy diet may help prevent or treat high cholesterol. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that healthy children ages 2 and older follow a diet low in fat (30% of calories from fat). These are the same recommendations for healthy adults. A diet high in fat, especially saturated fat and trans fat, may increase your child's risk for heart disease and obesity in adulthood. It's important to teach your child about healthy eating so that they can make healthy food choices as an adult.

Don't put children younger than age 2 on a low-fat diet unless advised by your child's healthcare provider. Children younger than age 2 need fat in their diets to help with growth and development.

What is saturated fat?

Saturated fat is a type of fat found in foods. It's often solid at room temperature. This type of fat may raise the body's cholesterol level more than other types of fat. Limit saturated fat in your child's diet and replace it with unsaturated fat to help decrease the risk for heart disease. Some of the main sources of saturated fat include:

  • Butter

  • Cheeses

  • Fatty meats (bacon, hot dogs, ribs, and sausage)

  • Chicken skin

  • Whole milk

  • Ice cream

  • Pizza

  • Grain and dairy based desserts

  • Coconut oil

  • Palm oil

What is trans fat?

Trans fats are the worst type of fats for your child. They raise your child's LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower your child's HDL ("good") cholesterol, which raises your child's risk for heart disease. Trans fats are found in many processed and packaged foods. These include:

  • Pastries

  • Pies

  • Doughnuts

  • Cookies

  • Crackers

  • Deep fried foods

  • Stick margarines and shortenings

What is unsaturated fat?

Unsaturated fat is a type of fat in foods. It's often liquid at room temperature. This type of fat doesn't usually increase cholesterol when eaten in moderate amounts. Choose foods high in unsaturated fats:

  • Olive oil

  • Canola oil

  • Safflower and sunflower oil

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Peanut butter

  • Corn oil and vegetable oils

  • Avocados

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by the body. It's also found in some foods. Cholesterol found in foods is called dietary cholesterol. It's found only in animal foods. These are:

  • Meat

  • Poultry

  • Fish

  • Eggs

  • Dairy products

Plant foods such as grains, fruits, and vegetables don't contain cholesterol. If cholesterol gets too high, then it may build up in the blood vessels and cause damage. For decades, it has been recommended to limit the amount of cholesterol in your child's and your diet. But recent evidence suggests cholesterol from food doesn't raise cholesterol levels as much as had been thought. 

Choose My Plate icon

Making healthy food choices for your family

The MyPlate icon is a guideline to help you and your child eat a healthy diet. MyPlate can help you and your child eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat. The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have developed the following food plate to guide parents in selecting foods for children age 2 and older.

The MyPlate icon is divided into 5 food categories:

  • Grains. Foods made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Make at least half of your family's grains whole-grains. Examples of whole-grains include whole-wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Vegetables. Vary your family's vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (dry beans and peas), and starchy vegetables. Make half your family's plate fruits and vegetables.

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut up, or pureed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no juice for children under 1 year old. For children ages 1 to 3, limit juice to 4 ounces per day. For children 4 to 6, limit juice to 6 ounces per day. For children 7 to 18, limit juice to 8 ounces or 1 cup of juice per day. 

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk products, as well as those that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean with protein. Choose low-fat or lean cuts of meat and poultry. Vary your family's protein routine by choosing more fish, nuts, seeds, dried beans, and peas.

Oils are not a food group, yet you can include some in moderation, like vegetable and nut oils. These contain essential nutrients. Don't use others, such as solid animal fats. A Mediterranean diet of vegetables, whole-grains, beans, fruits, and olive oil lowers the risk for heart disease.

Keeping your family's salt (sodium) intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day lowers the risk for heart attack.

Encourage your child to get plenty of physical activity along with eating a healthy diet. 

Nutrition and activity tips for your family

Suggestions for heart-healthy eating include:

  • Try to control when and where food is eaten by your children by providing regular daily meal and snack times with social interaction and demonstration of healthy eating behaviors.

  • Involve children in the selection and preparation of foods. Teach them to make healthy choices by providing opportunities to select foods based on their nutritional value.

  • Select foods with these important nutrients when possible:  vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Select foods with these nutrients when possible.

  • Most Americans need to reduce the number of calories they consume. When it comes to weight control, calories do count. Controlling portion sizes and eating nonprocessed foods helps limit calorie intake and increase nutrients.

  • Parents are encouraged to provide recommended serving sizes for children.

  • Parents are encouraged to limit children’s screen time to 1 to 2 hours daily and encourage activities that need more movement.

  • Children and teens need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days for good health and fitness and for healthy weight during growth.

  • To prevent dehydration, encourage children to drink fluid regularly during physical activity and drink several glasses of water or other fluid after the physical activity is completed.

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020  and to determine the appropriate dietary recommendations for your child’s age, gender, and physical activity level, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov and 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. Please note that the MyPlate plan is designed for people older than age 2 who don't have chronic health conditions.

Always talk with your child’s healthcare provider regarding his or her healthy diet and exercise requirements.

Guidelines for eating less fat

  • Increase intake of fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Bake, broil, or grill foods instead of frying.

  • Choose low-fat meats, like chicken, fish, turkey, lean pork, and lean beef (meat without visible fat and without skin).

  • Limit high-fat meats, like sausage, bacon, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, bologna, and fried meat.

  • Use fruits as dessert instead of high-fat desserts, like ice cream, cake, cookies.

  • Limit amounts of added fat, like margarine, butter, oil, salad dressing, and mayonnaise.

  • Use low-fat or fat-free dairy products, like milk, cheese, sour cream, and cream cheese.

Food adjustments

Consider the following examples of food for healthier eating for your family:

Food product category

Eat less

Eat more

Meat and meat substitutes, poultry, fish, dry beans, and nuts

Regular beef, pork, lamb, regular ground beef, fatty cuts of meat

Poultry with skin, fried chicken

Fried fish

Regular lunch meat (bologna, salami, sausage, hot dogs)

Beef, pork, lamb, lean cuts (90% lean, well-trimmed before cooking)

Poultry without skin

Fish, shellfish

Processed meat prepared from lean meat

Dry beans and peas

Tofu and tempeh

Nuts and seeds

Eggs

Fried eggs in butter

Eggs (not fried in butter)

Egg substitutes

Dairy products

Milk: whole and 2% milk

Yogurt: whole milk types

Cheese: Regular cheeses (American, cheddar, Swiss, blue, Monterey Jack, cream cheese)

Frozen dairy desserts: regular ice cream

Milk: nonfat (skim) or low-fat

Yogurt: nonfat or low-fat

Cheese: low-fat or nonfat types

Frozen dairy desserts: low-fat or nonfat ice cream, low-fat or nonfat frozen yogurt (watch out for added sugars)

Fats and oils

Butter, lard, shortening, bacon fat, regular mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese, salad dressings, coconut oil, palm kernel, palm oil, and products with trans fats

Unsaturated oils: safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, canola, olive, peanut, avocado

Low-fat or nonfat mayonnaise, margarine, sour cream, cream cheese, and salad dressings

Grains

Refined grains (white flour, white rice), biscuits, cornbread, muffins, pancakes, breakfast pastries, doughnuts, waffles, granolas, fried rice, and packaged pasta and rice mixes

Whole-grain breads, pastas, tortillas, and cereals, brown rice, oats

Vegetables (dark green, red and orange, legumes, beans and peas, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables)

Vegetables fried or prepared with butter, cheese, cream sauce, or salt

Fresh, frozen, or canned, without added fat, salt, or sauce

Fruit (whole, cut up, pureed, and 100% fruit juice)

Fried fruit or fruit served with butter, heavy syrup, or cream sauce

Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried without added fat or sugar

Online Medical Reviewer: Brittany Poulson MDA RDN CD CDE
Online Medical Reviewer: Diane Horowitz MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2020
© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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