April 26, 2012

Fruits and Vegetables During Childhood Promote Lifelong Health

Can a good diet as a child prevent heart disease as an adult? New research from Finland suggests that the answer is yes.

Atherosclerosis is the primary cause of premature death from coronary heart disease. Previous research has demonstrated that in adults, a diet high in fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Up to this point, however, there has been no good long term research studies showing a direct link between childhood nutrition to the development of cardiovascular risk factors as an adult.

In the Young Finns Study researchers wanted to know the impact of childhood nutrition upon adult heart disease. In 1980, the scientists looked at the dietary habits of over 4000 children from 3 to 18 years of age. They then did follow-up assessments of the children 6 years, 21 years, and 27 years later.

Several important components of childhood nutrition were predictive of increased cardiovascular risk factors as an adult. Boys who were breast fed, compared to given baby formula, when they grew up tended to have improved functioning of endothelial cells, the cells which line the inside of blood vessels. A childhood diet high in fruits and vegetables was associated with improved flexibility of the arteries during adulthood. In women, consumption of sugar sweetened soft drinks was linked to increased obesity as an adult.

There were two basic dietary patterns identified in the children: a traditional diet and a health conscious diet. The traditional diet of rye, potatoes, milk, butter, sausages and coffee was associated with the development of multiple cardiovascular risk factors as an adult. On the other hand, a health conscious diet which emphasized fruits and vegetables was associated with beneficial outcomes, including decreased cholesterol plaque buildup in the carotid arteries as an adult.

This research strongly suggests that dietary habits and patterns established during childhood continue into adulthood. Eating behaviors and food choices while a child tend to be linked with adult nutritional choices. This has profound implications for parents and schools.

Encouraging children to make wise food choices almost certainly will lead to better lifelong health and a decreased risk of premature death from heart disease. Furthermore, the research simplifies the dietary goals for children. We simply need to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in our children, and the likely outcome is a much healthier child who grows into a much healthier adult.

Reference: Kaikkonen JE et al. Does childhood nutrition influence adult cardiovasculardisease risk?-Insights from the Young Finns Study. Annals of Medicine, 2012 April 12.

Author: Tom Heston, MD