Cultivating Healthy Heart Habits in Your Children
Think about the simplest, most basic daily routines you have, like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, having breakfast, or even tying your shoelaces. Now try to remember when you started doing these things the way you do... The answer is most likely going to be in childhood.
You might object that your breakfast is nothing like what you used to have as a kid, since it’s much healthier or much more substantial. While this may be true, it is a fact that when you’re stripped of the acquired routines, the default ones are always those built in childhood.
According to recent research, habits in children are rooted by the age of 9 and are unlikely to change until adulthood. And when they do change, it comes as a result of a deliberate effort.
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What does it have to do with heart health? People usually associate heart disease with middle or older age, but studies have shown that atherosclerosis, for instance, may start at the age of 10 and slowly progress to manifest itself in evident symptoms by middle age. This condition is a direct cause of coronary artery disease and heart attack.
Knowing that among the main risk factors for atherosclerosis are various forms of unhealthy lifestyle, such as physical inactivity, poor eating habits, excess body weight, and smoking, it seems obvious that it is absolutely crucial not to underestimate the role that early years play in our future.
There are four core principles for cultivating healthy habits in children:
Being a role model
Children, especially at a very young age, learn everything from their parents. Really, everything. If they see you walking with a cigarette in your mouth most of the time, or chugging beers, they are very likely to adapt the same types of behavior later in their lives. Similarly, if you do sports and eat healthy foods, they’ll see it as the norm of behavior and follow in your footsteps.
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Therefore, it is critical to practice what you preach. Simply saying that eating healthy food is important only to follow this statement with the crunching sound of potato chips coming from your mouth will not work.
The best way to get children involved in being active is doing it with them in a fun way, rather than as a chore they ‘must’ go through with. Obviously, they will want to do things with their peers and this is something you should encourage, but being a role model is essential.
Being consistent and patient
Your family needs to have an established time for meals and snacks. This will help in shaping the understanding that food is not something you could and should have at any time, but rather a physiological need that runs in line with the body’s energy requirements.
“Unlike adults, children are still well-tuned to the needs of their bodies and it is your job to make sure that this alignment doesn’t get lost.”
Parents often complain that their children refuse to eat what they are given and that they don’t respect their parents’ efforts. This line of thought doesn’t seem particularly productive, does it? A better approach is to identify what foods your child likes (they will definitely like at least one food from every produce category) and rely on that as a sure source of the necessary nutrients.
If you want to introduce something new, do it gradually by adding it to the things your kid likes. Always have a backup plan and be patient. It might take longer than you hope, but children are flexible, their tastes change and you might find their ideal way of cooking broccoli or cauliflower after all.
Much of our health is determined by what we put into our bodies. Therefore, eating right is something that should be learned as early as possible. However, it is very important not only to make your children eat well, but also to give them an understanding of what it is that they consume. There are several ways to do that:
- involving them in cooking their own meals if they show interest in it
- taking them shopping, and teaching them about food labels and the importance of choosing produce mindfully
- giving them options for what they could have for lunch or dinner so that they feel responsible for what they eat
- growing some of the produce at a vegetable patch (if you have one)
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Giving them freedom
There are many things we lose as we grow older. Curiosity, ability to appreciate simple things, open-mindedness, and kindness are among the more elusive ones. The ability to know when you’re full is among those more relevant to this conversation.
Unlike adults, children are still well-tuned to the needs of their bodies and it is your job to make sure that this alignment doesn’t get lost. Never tell your child to “clean their plate” or to “have just one more bite”.
“Just like you wouldn’t expect engagement from an employee who is simply told what to do without being let in on the bigger picture, don’t expect a child to blindly follow orders and obey rules. Rebellion and backlash will come and annihilate any “effort” you’ve made.”
It might also be a good idea to occasionally have fast food, but order the smallest portion available. This would prevent your child from eating French fries secretly from you out of curiosity, or because other kids eat them all the time.
Get Them Onto Your Team
What you ultimately need to achieve is understanding and buy-in. Just like you wouldn’t expect engagement from an employee who is simply told what to do without being let in on the bigger picture, don’t expect a child to blindly follow orders and obey rules. Rebellion and backlash will come and annihilate any “effort” you’ve made. As long as you share your passion with them, treat them with respect as equals rather than someone who needs to be ordered and taught, they will follow you and may become even more dedicated to living life healthily.