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.
The study of children in Finland found that those 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 7 months. About half of the children and their families were counseled 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.
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 age of 14, there were no differences between the groups in height or weight, they found. An earlier study of the groups found no differences in brain development at age 5.
Dr. Sarah Blumenschein, a pediatric cardiologist with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 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-counseling group, families were told to give them skim milk beginning at age 1, keep daily cholesterol intake at less than 200 mg and aim for a fat intake of 30 to 35 percent of their daily calories.
By the age of 7, 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 Monday of the American Heart Association journal Circulation, showed that the counseled kids had a diet lower in total fat and saturated fat and higher in protein and carbohydrates than the comparison group.
Niinikoski said that they don't have any reason to believe that the families were eating any differently for the rest of the year.
"Our results about the cholesterol values tell the same story, so it must be coming from the diet," he said.
While the group that got specific dietary counseling had lower cholesterol readings than the other group, the difference was statistically significant for boys but not for girls — a difference of about 5 percent in boys and 2-4 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.
But doctors say that even a small decrease in cholesterol levels can have a big influence.
"If you study large numbers of people, the small increments result in a significant change in heart attacks and cardiac deaths," said Dr. Art Labovitz, cardiology director at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
Labovitz said that people often don't realize that what they do for the first 40 to 50 years of their life has an effect on their chance of heart attacks and heart disease.
Dr. Stuart Berger, medical director of the Herma Heart Center at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, said there's no reason the same results wouldn't be seen in American children if they adhered to such a diet.
"I think that the biggest challenge in the U.S. would be compliance to the diet," said Berger.