Heart Disease in Kids? Fat Chance -- Literally
March 13, 2000 (Anaheim, Calif.) -- The typical adolescent diet consisting largely of high-fat junk food is likely to send a young person into the emergency room as an adult. And Latino youths are particularly guilty of bad eating habits, say researchers presenting their findings here Monday at the 49th Annual Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology.
"These young people are eating a horrendous diet, which makes them very susceptible to heart disease when they grow up," says Albert Sanchez, DrPH, of the Pacific Health Education Center in Bakersfield, Calif. Sanchez and his colleagues studied 249 high school students in a community about 50 miles north of Los Angeles.
The group of 13- to 18-year-olds came from three different schools -- one Latino, one located in a predominately blue-collar area, and the other from a Seventh Day Adventist community whose strong religious values affect diet and health. The kids were checked for the well-known risk factors for heart disease including weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol level.
In addition, scientists performed ultrasound scans of the carotid artery in the students. The thickness of the large vessel supplying blood to the brain is an early indicator of hardening of the arteries, called atherosclerosis.
The investigators found that the more junk food the adolescents ate, the worse their arteries looked. "In fact, we found that in 11% of the people [there were] abnormalities which we would normally expect ... in 40-year-olds," says study co-author Jacques D. Barth, MD, PhD, of Prevention Concepts Inc.
In the study, the Seventh Day Adventist children had virtually no risk factors for heart disease; the teens in the blue-collar white high school had some, but the Latinos had the worst risk profiles. Overall, 80% of the students had too much fat in their diet, and 49% consumed too much cholesterol. Eleven percent had hypertension. A high body mass index -- that is, weight adjusted for height -- in these students also correlated with having more risk factors.
"We are, at this point, appalled that [80% of] these young people are eating ... this way," says Sanchez. Both Sanchez and Barth singled out school lunches as being primarily responsible for the poor dietary habits of teens.
The researchers also say that the issue isn't just better nutrition but sending the appropriate cultural messages to various ethnic communities. "We've got to target them in their language, in their culture. We're not going to sell with potatoes. Let's sell them with beans and tortillas," says Sanchez.
In a related study presented at the conference, researchers from Brazil found that 211 overweight children who had blood pressure abnormalities were more likely to have those same heart risk factors than normal kids when checked 10 years later. Again, the researchers say that the message is that heart disease prevention starts early in life.
As presenter Andrea Brandao, MD, of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, puts it, "You can change the diet, exercise habits ... these are the things that can favorably modify the whole scenario."