The Long Run When it comes to lowering your child’s blood pressure, short-term goals are not the point. You don’t only want your children to have normal blood pressure as kids; you want to teach them healthy habits that will last a lifetime so they never have high blood pressure again. “Kids who have high blood pressure are much more likely to have high blood pressure as adults – and heart disease and diabetes, too,” says Elizabeth A. Jackson, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Michigan Hospital and Health Systems. “Think of healthy habits in childhood as an investment in your child’s future. Being a healthy weight, and having normal blood sugar and blood pressure as children means your kids will probably have fewer risk factors for heart disease as adults and will be more likely to have long, healthy lives.” Here, six ways to lower your kids’ blood pressure and improve their overall health now and in the future.
Fill Up the Fruit Bowl! In a recent study from Harvard looking at national data on kids’ diets, most kids did not consume enough calcium, potassium, and magnesium in their diets, all minerals vital to normal blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium and magnesium as well as other vital nutrients. Help your kids get in the habit of dipping fresh fruit into calcium-rich yogurt, or sliced veggies or baby carrots into cottage cheese for snacks instead of munching on salty pretzels, chips or crackers. You will up their intakes of potassium, calcium and magnesium and probably reduce their intake of sodium.
Kids’ choice! Involve your children in food choice and preparation and they will be more likely to eat nutritiously, whether it’s planting a vegetable or herb garden or having your kids look up new recipes and pick the ones they would like to try. “It doesn’t mean that they can choose chips and ice cream for dinner, but the more they are making smart food choices at a young age, the more likely they will be to make healthy choices as they get into their teen years and go off to college,” says Dr. Jackson. One good source for blood-pressure-lowering recipes is the website of the DASH diet
Salt smart!In the new Harvard study, 80 percent of kids consumed too much sodium and those who had the highest sodium intakes were 36 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. Your kids probably know that chips, pretzels, popcorn and some of their other favorite snack foods have salt, but what about “hidden” salt? “Reducing the sodium in your child’s diet means more than hiding the salt shaker,” says Dr. Jackson. “Sodium sneaks into lots of food – ketchup, pasta, pasta sauce, soups, frozen foods. By cooking at home with fresh produce and mostly from scratch, you can really cut down on the sodium you’re consuming.” At the grocery store, if you’re deciding between two or three brands of pasta sauce, cereal, soups, salad dressing or other foods, ask your kids to compare the nutrition labels and pick the one lowest in sodium.
Exercise: a family affair! Whether it’s swimming together, playing kickball in the backyard or shooting baskets in the driveway, going for a nightly after-dinner family walk, or biking en famille
on the weekend, exercising as a family helps lower your child’s blood pressure in several ways. It will help your child lose weight if he needs to without making him feel like he is alone in the process and losing excess weight is key to lowering blood pressure. Also studies show that both exercising and spending time with people you love can reduce stress, a major risk factor for high blood pressure.
The whole grain advantage! In the new Harvard study, most kids did not consume enough fiber even though multiple studies have shown that high-fiber diets help people lower their blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends that both children and adults should consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories they consume per day or about 25 to 31 grams total per day for kids ages 4 to 13, and 29 to 38 grams per day for teenagers. In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables (which are natural sources of fiber), stock your kitchen with whole-grain breads, crackers and pasta, brown and wild rice, and a variety of beans and legumes. Bonus: Fiber-rich foods fill you up without adding many calories, helping your kids maintain a normal weight, too.
Walk the Walk…and Ride the Ride! When it comes to getting your kids to adopt good lifelong habits, your actions speak louder than your words. “Often I see adults who don’t exercise much and aren’t big on eating fruits and vegetables themselves, who have children who are overweight and who have high blood pressure,” says Dr. Jackson. “Modeling healthy behaviors is really important not only for your own health, but for your children’s health, too.”
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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.