US Teens Eating A Bit Less Fat -
Only 1 Of 6 Eats
Heart Healthy Diet
By Lauran Neergaard
AP Medical Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Today's teen-agers eat a little less fat and cholesterol than teens did in the late 1960s, concludes a government study that says the trend may give young people a better start at healthy adulthood. Still, the cholesterol drop was just 4 percent, and only one in six children eats a heart-healthy diet, the National Institutes of Health reported Monday. ``The drop ... doesn't necessarily knock your socks off,'' acknowledged NIH cholesterol coordinator Dr. James Cleeman. ``But if (teens) maintain a seven-point lower cholesterol for a lifetime, that can make a big difference.'' Unfortunately, cholesterol matters even to children. Heart disease is the nation's leading killer, and autopsies of children killed in accidents showed that some of them had arteries that already were clogging with the fat. Moreover, other heart risks are on the rise among children: Studies show more and more are overweight, and only about half of teens get enough exercise. The new study, in this month's issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, used a massive federal health database to estimate the cholesterol levels and eating habits of children and teens. The average total cholesterol level of today's teens is 160, Cleeman reported. That's down from a level of 167 in the late 1960s. The new study also measured teens' levels of so-called good and bad cholesterol. But because earlier studies only measured total cholesterol, Cleeman could not compare those numbers. Still, every 1 percent drop in people's total cholesterol levels translates into a 2 percent to 3 percent drop in the chances a person will have heart disease in the future, he said. So the 4 percent drop in teen cholesterol levels could prove significant if this generation of Americans can maintain the lower levels as they age. During the same time period, adults' cholesterol levels dropped by 10 points. Heart specialists said the children's levels may have dropped merely as a side benefit of parents changing a family menu. Cleeman also reported that: _Teens' daily consumption of fat dropped from 37 percent of their calories in the late 1960s to 34 percent today, and their daily cholesterol intake fell from 350 milligrams to 265 milligrams. _Black teens had cholesterol levels about 6 points higher than whites, and black girls had the highest average level of any demographic group studied, 168. The disparity was puzzling, because black adults generally have lower cholesterol levels than white adults, but Cleeman said black teens also were more likely to be overweight. _The worst 5 percent of teens had much higher cholesterol levels, reaching 216. _Only one in six kids meets national dietary guidelines _ limiting daily fat consumption to less than 30 percent of calories; saturated fat to less than 10 percent; and cholesterol consumption below 300 milligrams. Doctors do not recommend giving cholesterol tests to typical kids unless their parents have super-high cholesterol or early heart disease, Cleeman stressed. So the study's take-home message: Parents must instill heart-healthy eating habits in children early, before they hit adolescence and start hanging out at fat-clogging fast-food joints, said the American Heart Association's Dr. David A. Meyerson, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University. Infants and toddlers need to eat fat for proper brain development. But parents should start tapering that off after age 2 _ a good time to start switching from whole milk to 2 percent milk and then, in elementary school, even less fatty milk, said Meyerson, who said his own children drink skim milk. A little cake and ice cream is OK every so often, but a bologna sandwich every day or regularly eating hot dogs is too much fat, he said. Improving diet during childhood ``will translate to far fewer heart attacks and strokes in the future,'' Meyerson said. ``The earlier we start (heart disease) prevention, the better it's going to work.''