Shannon McDaniel grew up playing just about every sport – basketball, track, cheerleading and gymnastics. Her eating, though, didn’t get quite the same attention. She simply wasn’t raised in a home that focused on nutrition, she said.
Although McDaniel remained active into adulthood, it wasn’t until she started CrossFit at age 40 that she really emphasized healthy eating. The mom of five kids ranging in age from 6 to 20 years old has seen firsthand the power of promoting good eating habits at home.
For example, her youngest son, who’s been raised to value vegetables, will pick steamed broccoli over anything else on his plate, McDaniel said.
McDaniel and her husband, Donnie, own Iron Bridge CrossFit in West Ashley, where McDaniel is head coach and also runs the CrossFit Kids program. While she can’t control what the kids in her classes are eating at home, she talks about nutrition and the importance of making healthy choices.
“The kids see some of our athletes who are very healthy and in shape. They don’t get that way just by working out,” she said.
McDaniel highlights the importance of both exercise and a good diet – a message that many fitness professionals, nutritionists and doctors preach nonstop. It’s a gold standard for heart health – and building those heart-healthy habits at a young age will follow children into adulthood.
Be a good role model
Janet Carter is program manager and lead dietician of the Heart Health program at MUSC Children’s Hospital. She urges parents to tap into their children’s natural enthusiasm for good health.
“One thing I’ve noticed in my entire career working with kids is that pretty much all kids have an innate desire to be healthy,” Carter said. “If I talk to kids in a school setting and ask, “Do you want a healthy body?” every child raises their hand. They don’t even think about it.”
Carter said parents can leverage their child’s desire to be healthy by promoting health and wellness at home. Have conversations about why you picked a certain veggie-packed dinner and how to make nutritious choices. It helps your kids buy into eating well, Carter said.
First and foremost, parents have to be good role models themselves, Carter said. Parents may need to take a hard look at their own habits and make adjustments.
Go on a flavor adventure
As parents are instilling good nutritional habits, Carter cautions against dinner table fights.
“Forcing them to try something new is never really going to work,” Carter said. “It usually will cause them to be resistant in general.”
Instead, she suggests setting a family rule that everyone has to try at least one bite of something new. Then, if your child doesn’t like a particular food the first time they try it, don’t take it off the list forever. Tastes change, so offer that food another time.
“Always keep mealtimes positive,” Carter said. “If you ever start making mealtimes a battle or a fight, kids end up with disordered meal patterns.”
Turn trying new foods into an adventure. With her own 3-year-old, she’s taken a cue from the movie “Ratatouille,” in which the character tries the combination of cheese and fruit, calling it a “flavor sensation.” In her house, Carter encourages “flavor sensations.”
Physical activity is a must
When it comes to creating heart-healthy habits, exercise is just as important as healthy eating.
According to the American Heart Association, fewer than 50% of teens between 12 and 19 years old get enough physical activity each day to keep their hearts healthy.
“What’s more important, the sun setting or the sun rising?” Carter asks patients when they wonder if they should focus on diet or exercise. “Both are so incredibly important. You can’t really be as healthy as possible without working on both of them. That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. You don’t want to have an all or nothing mentality.”
Carter said kids should be moving their bodies as much as possible. Younger children don’t necessarily need a formal exercise plan, but older children and teens should be getting their heart rate up for 30 to 45 minutes each day.
“Any time you’re moving your body, it helps, but getting your heart rate up improves cardiovascular health,” she said. “That’s what strengthens the heart.”
McDaniel preaches daily movement to her CrossFit Kids classes and to own her own children. Her 14-year-old son put on a few extra pounds during the quarantine.
So, she encouraged him to get moving – take the dog for a walk, get into a CrossFit class two or three times a week, ride his bike to the bus stop.
“Do something healthy every day. As a coach, I promote a healthy lifestyle even outside of class,” McDaniel said. “It’s a lifestyle. Build healthy habits for the future.”
Four pillars of good health
Working in family medicine, Dr. Marcus Salo said the increasing number of children and teens who are overweight is concerning. He points to the availability of processed food and lack of exercise as key contributors to the rising rates of obesity among young people.
The American Heart Association reports about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese. Children under the age of 13 that are overweight my start developing heart disease as early as age 25.
“The increasing rates of childhood obesity leads to increased risk of developing diabetes and cholesterol abnormalities and other vitamin deficiencies. It just snowballs,” Salo said.
When conducting well-child visits, Salo counsels parents to focus on four pillars of health: diet, exercise, sleep and social engagement.
Most children’s diets are lacking in fruits and vegetables and fresh food, Salo said. Missing out on healthy fruits and vegetables can lead to deficiencies in iron, zinc and Vitamin B12, which are critical in children to encourage growth.
Salo also encourages regular cardiovascular exercise and getting that heart rate up to the point you can’t have a full conversation.
An often-overlooked pillar of health is sleep. For growing children, sleep is vital for repairing damage to the body and for regeneration.
The rise in screen time has led to a decrease in the amount of sleep children and teens are getting. Salo said elementary and middle school children should be getting at least 10 hours of sleep for adequate regeneration.
Even though it may not seem to relate directly to a healthy heart, Salo encourages parents to pay attention to social and family dynamics. Children are developing their personalities and establishing good core values – all part of full-body health.
Just as they would notice slipping grades as a cause for the concern, parents also should pay attention to early signs of weight gain.
“Parents think kids will grow out of any weight issue they have. That’s not the case,” Carter said. “They don’t grow out of an overweight situation. Science shows us that kids who are overweight or obese as a child or teen are much more likely to become overweight adults.”