Cutting the saturated fat in children’s diets now may lower their risk of heart disease or stroke later in life.

A new Finnish study shows that boys who were fed a low-saturated-fat diet from infancy through their first 10 years had lower cholesterol levels, healthier arteries, and a lower risk of stroke than those fed normal diets.

Saturated fat is found in meat, dairy products, fried foods, and baked goods. A diet high in saturated fat in adults has been shown to raise cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.

Researchers say the results suggest that a diet designed to lower cholesterol levels can have long-term beneficial effects in children growing up in an area with high rates of heart disease, such as Finland.

Low-Fat Diet May Build Healthier Hearts

In the study, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers randomly divided about 1,000 healthy 7-month-old babies into two groups. The parents of one group received counseling and instruction on feeding their infants a diet low in saturated fat, and the infants in the other served as a comparison group and were fed normal diets.

Saturated fat in the low-fat diet group was limited to about 30 percent of daily calories from fat. In the comparison group, daily intake of saturated fat was unrestricted and was consistently higher than 30 percent.

When the children were 11 years old, researchers measured artery function and cholesterol levels in almost 400 of the children. They found boys who followed the low-saturated-fat diet had healthier arteries than those who followed the unrestricted diet.

Boys who followed the low-saturated-fat diet also had significantly lower cholesterol levels.

This effect, however, was not found among girls in the study.

Researchers say lower cholesterol levels and healthier arteries early in life could lower the risk of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke in adulthood.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCE: Raitakari, O. Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, Dec. 5, 2005; vol 112.