My daughter Kaitlyn is 8 years old. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, she’s ready for cholesterol-lowering drugs. Yes, you read that right. In a move that has left many parents incredulous, the nation’s pediatricians recently issued new guidelines calling for cholesterol screening of children as young as 2-and cholesterol drugs for kids as young as 8. Without intervention, the doctors say, today’s overweight youngsters are doomed to become tomorrow’s heart patients.
Do we really want to start our kids off on a decades-long regimen of drugs usually reserved for retirees?
There is no doubt that obesity and heart disease even in very young children is a growing problem. Thirty percent of the nation’s children are now overweight or obese. If present trends continue, according to a report published by the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, nearly half of the children in North America will be overweight by 2010.
Overweight kids tend to become overweight adults, at risk for heart disease, strokes and all the other ailments stemming from extra pounds. Children as young as 3 are showing signs of clogged arteries, and pediatricians are reporting an alarming increase in the number of children with type 2 diabetes, a disease that typically affects adults.
But is medicating our kids the only answer? For my children, at least, the answer is no. Never mind the fact that adults taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, or statins, have reported serious side effects like debilitating muscle pain and cognitive problems. Because statins are relatively new-they were introduced in the mid-1980s-we don’t know the potential dangers of taking them for decades. Doctors also don’t know if children on statins will really lower their risk of having a heart attack later in life.
A better solution, I think, is to teach kids to eat their veggies. Kaitlyn and her older sister, Gabriella, who is 13, are both vegetarian. Simply by eliminating meat from their diet, my daughters’ risk of obesity and heart disease has been slashed. Studies show that meat-eaters are four times as likely to be obese as vegetarians are-and 10 times more likely to suffer from heart disease.
World-renowned pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock touted the benefits of a vegetarian diet in his best-selling book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage,” he wrote. “They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.”
Unlike meat, eggs and dairy products, plant-based foods are 100 percent cholesterol-free. Most are naturally low in fat and calories and high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and the other vital nutrients that kids need. Studies have found that a plant-based diet rich in soy foods and soluble fiber can reduce cholesterol levels by as much as one-third.
As an added benefit, kids who grow up as vegetarians tend to enjoy a wider range of foods than their meat-eating friends, making mealtimes much easier-and providing them with a larger source of nutrients. Kaitlyn and Gaby, for example, love fried tofu with broccoli (how many kids will eat broccoli without a fuss?), veggie burgers, chili, pasta with vegan pesto, fruit, green salads and arroz con gandules (an Ecuadorian dish made with rice and pigeon peas, one of my wife’s specialties).
While the choice might not be as simple as broccoli stir-fries or statins, we owe it to our kids to consider lifestyle changes before suggesting a lifetime of popping pills. By teaching children how to make smart food choices, we can provide them with the fuel they need to be healthy and active now-and help protect them from a host of painful and debilitating ailments as they grow older.