June 17, 2013 1:12 pm
Updated: June 17, 2013 2:22 pm

Preschoolers’ eating habits linked to future heart health risks, Canadian study suggests

A new report indicates Toronto has the highest child poverty rate compared to all major cities in Canada.

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TORONTO – Are preschoolers’ eating habits already taking a toll on their health and cholesterol levels?

In a new study, Canadian scientists suggest that it’s not necessarily what’s on your child’s plate but how he or she eats her meals that could be related to future risk of heart disease.

At St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, doctors looked at the eating habits of 1,075 kids who were just three to five years old.

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Plenty of research into the eating habits of adults and the effect on health has been conducted, but there’s little information about preschool-aged children, according to study co-author Dr. Navindra Persaud. This study hoped to change that.

Persaud and his team scoured questionnaires filled out by parents on what kids were eating and what they were doing while having their meals. Other data collected included height, weight and activity levels. The families also offered blood samples.

Turns out, kids who had unhealthy eating behaviours were more likely to have higher cholesterol levels than their peers. Those patterns include eating in front of the television, snacking on junk food between meals and allowing kids to decide for themselves what they wanted to eat.

Even after the scientists controlled for factors such as weight, height, ethnicity of the kids and their parents, the link remained.

“It was a surprise to me and I think it would be a surprise to many people,” Persaud said of his findings.

“We found a closer relationship in this age group between eating behaviours and cholesterol levels than between the actual intake that was reported. It didn’t matter what they were eating, it was more how they were eating,” he said.

Other studies based on preschoolers have linked high cholesterol levels among youth to risk of heart attack or stroke as adults.

Meanwhile, a growing library of research has already pointed to adults eating more if they’re sitting in front of the television. Theories suggest that diners aren’t paying attention to their internal cues or they’re more likely to graze mindlessly on the same food.

Read more: What you should be eating to lower your blood pressure

“It’s like you keep shovelling pasta into your mouth as opposed to valuing variety when you’re paying attention to your diet. It’s possible that those issues are at play also in preschool,” said Persaud.

Giving control to the child

Persaud is a family doctor at St. Michael’s Hospital who sees young patients as well as their parents. He says he recognizes the challenge in encouraging healthy eating in kids.

In his waiting room and examination room, more often than not, he sees kids snacking on unhealthy options.

“It’s easy to say we should have a fun and interesting selection of food and make it available to kids,” he said.

“Sometimes, a family is in a rush and it’s not possible to do that, so it’s a challenge. One takeaway message is we should be thinking more about these eating behaviours and try to promote healthy eating even if we can’t do that at every single meal and every single day,” Persaud said.

Read more: Scientists use Sesame Street to study brain development in children

Persaud suggests parents set the example by keeping TV – or any other screens – away during mealtime. He says that parents should also provide healthy food to their kids but let them decide when they’re hungry.

“Let them have some control over when they eat, even though they don’t have control over what they eat,” he explained.

Following kids into adulthood

The study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, stems from the TARGet Kids! project led by St. Michael’s Hospital, Sick Kids and the University of Toronto.

Read more: Toronto hospital launching landmark study following pregnant women and their babies

Launched about four years ago, the project brings together family doctors, pediatricians, researchers and educators. So far, about 4,000 kids are enrolled in the long-term study that hopes to follow babies into adulthood, offering a life-long glimpse into the health of Canadians.

The project was just extended to include preschoolers in Winnipeg and Montreal, Persaud said.

For his next steps, he hopes to look at eating behaviours and their link to other risk factors such as diabetes, blood sugar and insulin levels. He’s also hoping to look at intervention programs to help parents navigate healthy food options for their kids.

Read the full study here.


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