‘Western’ Diet During Childhood Linked to Blood Vessel Damage

New research suggests that children who consume a 'Westernized' diet high in calories, fat, and sugar may have stiffer arteries as teenagers than those eating a more Mediterranean-style diet during childhood.

Health experts say that the number of premature heart attacks among adults younger than 40 years is increasing by 2% every year, likely driven by the rise in cardiovascular risk factors like obesity and high blood pressure among young people.

In response to this concerning trend, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a statement encouraging parents and caregivers to provide healthy food choices to children. The AHA explained that youngsters consuming a healthy diet may have a lower risk of developing obesity and heart disease.

Yet, how unhealthy eating during childhood impacts heart health later is poorly understood.

Recently, scientists from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, conducted a more detailed investigation into how a youngster's diet affects blood vessel health as they reach their teenage years.

They found that children who consumed diets low in fiber and high in calories, fat, and sugar — AKA a Westernized diet — had more blood vessel damage as teenagers than children consuming a healthier, Mediterranean-style diet plan.

The findings, published on January 10 in the British Journal of Nutrition, underscore the importance of healthy eating throughout one's lifespan to prevent cardiovascular disease.

The study involved 4,700 children from the Children of the 90s health study — a long-term longitudinal study of parents and children. The researchers examined dietary data of children at seven, 10, and 13 years of age.

Specifically, they assessed which participant's diets aligned with one of five dietary categories: Mediterranean-style, anti-inflammatory, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), children's Eatwell Guide-style, or an obesogenic diet.

The scientists then measured the participants' arterial wall thickness and stiffness when they reached ages 17 and 24.

The results showed that seven- and 10-year-old children who consumed diets high in calories, fat, and sugar and low in fiber had more artery stiffening as teenagers than those who ate healthier.

Moreover, youngsters who ate foods more closely aligned with the Mediterranean or the anti-inflammatory diet had reduced arterial stiffness as teens.

In a University of Bristol press release, lead researcher Dr. Genevieve Buckland, a BHF Research Fellow at Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol, said, "Our research highlights the importance of developing well-balanced eating habits from childhood to reduce the risk of future heart problems. Arterial stiffness is an important sign of blood vessel damage with potential for long-lasting effects."

The study's authors speculate that improved vessel health among children who followed the Mediterranean diet could be related to the diet's focus on fish and seafood — which are high in heart-healthy omega-3s.

This dietary pattern also includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and wholegrain cereals rich in antioxidants and polyphenols — compounds linked to a wide range of cardiovascular benefits.

Moreover, the scientists suggest that foods included in the anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce inflammation and protect against arterial stiffening. In contrast, refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and drinks typically consumed in an obesogenic or more Westernized diet have the opposite effect, which can negatively impact vascular function.

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