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With childhood obesity on the rise, it’s not only adults who need to be tested for high cholesterol.

Children at risk of obesity or with a family history of heart disease should be screened for high cholesterol “from as young as two years old”.  This is the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The academy further recommends that all children between the ages of 9 to 11 years should be screened. This then needs to be repeated from the age of 17. Research shows that the hardening of the arteries starts during childhood. If left untreated, it may cause cardiovascular disease and other problems. Children with high cholesterol are also at risk of developing lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, says Kelly Francis, a registered dietician in Durban.

What’s to blame?

Cholesterol is the culprit. Cholesterol is a fat particle produced by the liver to help build cell membranes and hormones. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) says that our bodies produce all the cholesterol we need. The problem arises when we eat foods high in saturated and trans fats. These raise the level of low-density lipo protein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. This unusable “bad” cholesterol builds up on the walls of the arteries and hardens into deposits called plaques. A heart attack or stroke could result from the arteries becoming too blocked.  A toddler’s total cholesterol should be below 170mg/dL and the LDL (or bad) cholesterol be below 110mg/dL, according to the AAP.

Risk factors

Lucy Gericke, a registered dietician at HSFSA, says genetic factors are unmodifiable. However, you can do something about the other risk factors, such as poor diet, being overweight, lack of exercise, stress, excessive alcohol consumption (in adults) and exposure to smoking. Gericke adds that more children are exceeding their recommended weight. Some 17 percent of children between 8 to 11 years are overweight. An estimated 20 percent of children in Grades 8 to 11 are overweight, with five percent of these being obese. Children are also becoming less physically active. Exposure to second-hand smoke also lowers the level of “good” cholesterol in the body.

Keep it at bay

Following a heart-healthy lifestyle will help manage and prevent high cholesterol. Central to this is a diet that includes different fruits and vegetables, and fibre, and is low in fat and refined foods, such as biscuits, cakes and sugars. Remove fat from meat and choose skinless chicken and fish over red meat. Avoid processed meats, like sausages, and organ meats. Choose healthier fats, such as vegetable oils, nuts and avocado, and low-fat or fat-free dairy. Avoid drinks that are high in added sugar. Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week.

It’s important to start screening early and to encourage healthy habits from a young age.

Tamlyn Vincent