Teaching children from a young age to eat a low-fat diet can be effective - even as they reach their teens and begin eating more meals away from home, according to a new study done in Finland.
The study found that children who were taught to focus on healthy fats - those found in fish, nuts, seeds and oils from plants - had slightly lower cholesterol levels compared to those who ate an unrestricted diet.
The researchers have been following the 1 062 children since the age of seven months. About half of the children and their families were counselled to shift fat intake from animal-based saturated fats to healthier unsaturated fats. The rest did not get specific diet advice. The new study reported the results on the children at age 14.
Childhood lifestyle choices
Dr Harri Niinikoski, lead author of the study done at the University of Turku in Finland, said children begin forming their eating and lifestyle habits in childhood.
"We think that this lifestyle change can be started early," he said.
Researchers also note that fears that a low intake of saturated fat might influence growth and brain development in young children are unfounded. At the age of 14, there were no differences between the groups in terms of height or weight, they found. An earlier study of the groups found no differences in brain development at age five.
Early intervention is key
Dr Sarah Blumenschein, a paediatric cardiologist with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, said the study shows that early intervention is the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
"The earlier you intervene, the more likely you are going to be successful," she said.
For the children in the diet-counselling group, families were told to give them skim milk from age one, keep daily cholesterol intake at less than 200mg and aim for a fat intake of 30 to 35 percent of their daily calories.
By the age of seven, the diet information was aimed more toward the children instead of their parents.
Food journals were kept for several days each year to monitor the child's diet. The study, published in online editions of the American Heart Association journal Circulation, showed that the counselled kids had a diet lower in total fat and saturated fat and higher in protein and carbohydrates than the comparison group.
"Our results about the cholesterol values tell the same story, so it must be coming from the diet," he said.
While the group that received specific dietary counselling had lower cholesterol readings than the other group, the difference was statistically significant for boys but not for girls - a difference of about five percent in boys and two to four percent in girls depending on age, Niinikoski said. He said that the reasons for the difference between boys and girls was not studied, but it might have to do with hormonal differences or exercise habits. - (Jamie Stengle/SAPA/AP)
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