One in five U.S. kids has unhealthy cholesterol levels: CDC

Twenty-one percent of American children and teens have some form of abnormal cholesterol levels, which leaves them at higher risk for heart disease. Experts say diet is a risk factor. Mario Tama/Getty Images

One in five American children and adolescents has unhealthy cholesterol levels, according to American health officials. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) examined cholesterol levels in children and adolescents aged six to 19 from 2011 to 2014.

Teenagers were the most concerning: nearly 27 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds had the worst cholesterol levels.

There are two kinds of cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”).

Unhealthy levels of LDL are a key risk factor for heart disease and stroke when this cholesterol joins with fats and other substances to build up in the inner walls of arteries. The arteries can become clogged and narrow, and blood flow is reduced.

HDL carries harmful cholesterol away from the arteries and helps protect from heart attack and stroke.

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Health officials are concerned as younger and younger Americans and Canadians are showing high LDL cholesterol levels.

Also worrisome in the study was low levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol.  HDL cholesterol helps to remove bad cholesterol, so not having it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

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

The authors write, “one out of five children and adolescents (21 per cent) had at least one abnormal cholesterol measure (high total cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, or high non-HDL cholesterol).”

Dr. Julie Brothers, a preventive cardiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, spoke with NBC News on how to prevent or manage cholesterol levels in youth.

“I look at things like what they are drinking throughout the day. The majority are drinking a lot of sugar drinks,” she said.

Cutting back on sugary drinks can help, she’s found. So can adding exercise.

“The sugary drinks are a huge thing,” she said. “Then I work on fibre.”

The Heart and Stroke Foundation offers these tips for lowering and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels:

If you have high cholesterol, you can get your numbers back on track by being active (30 to 60 minutes most days), achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, becoming smoke-free and making some dietary changes.

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Eat a healthy, balanced diet of whole, minimally processed food.

This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein from a variety of sources (eg. beans and lentils, nuts, lower-fat dairy and alternatives, lean meats, and fish). Minimally processed foods are foods with only small changes to their original form and have no nutrients removed (e.g. brown rice, bagged carrots, frozen fruits and vegetables).

Limit your intake of highly processed foods.

These foods are a major source of saturated fat in the Canadian diet. Saturated fat is one risk factor for bad (LDL) blood cholesterol levels. Highly processed foods have many ingredients, are usually in a package and need little preparation.

Other tips:

  • Limit serving sizes of lean meat and poultry to two to three servings per day (a serving is 75 g or 2 ½ oz, about the size of a deck of cards)
  • Choose fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or trout at least twice a week.
  • Include meat alternatives such as legumes or soy protein substitutes as part of your weekly meal plan.
  • Limit your whole eggs to no more than two per week. Replace a whole egg with two egg whites in baking.
  • Use non-hydrogenated margarine and oils such as canola or olive oil. Reduce the amount of solid fats used in cooking such as butter or lard.
  • Buy foods with little or no trans fat.
  • Select lower fat food items including milk products.
  • Include vegetables and fruit at each meal and snack.
  • Select whole grain products most often.

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