Children Can Fight Heart Disease with Fiber

boy and cooked vegetables

Eating more fiber can mean a healthier heart later in life, researchers find.

Waiting until the Golden Years to worry about cardiovascular disease may be a thing of the past. An estimated 43 percent of US children and teens have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control.

More than one-third of America’s youth are now overweight or obese—while these rates have leveled off over the past decade, disease risk has not. In the last 12 years, cases of prediabetes and diabetes in adolescence have jumped 14 percent (now at 23 percent, up from 9 percent in the year 2000).

Children with obesity are 24 percent more likely to display a risk factor for CVD than normal weight children. The most common risk factor for CVD in youth was elevated LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol that transports fat from the liver to the tissues). The other risk factors include: high total cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and inflammation. Formerly concerns for the aged, these warning signs are now causing concern for younger generations.

The progression as well as the prevention of cardiac risks starts in childhood. New research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that intake of fiber during childhood predicted artery stiffness—a cardiovascular risk factor—in adulthood.

“Lower lifetime intake of fiber during the course of young age is associated with carotid artery stiffness in adulthood,” the authors write. The average differences in fiber intake amounted to about 2 grams per day; however, with time these small quantities made a big impact on health qualities. The researchers explained that the difference in fiber intake amounted to one-half of a portion of broccoli or one apple each day.

A longitudinal cohort study followed the dietary habits of 373 children from the age of 13 to 36. Food frequency questionnaires were collected at eight different follow-ups over the course of the 24-year study and the authors measured arterial stiffness during the last session when the children were approximately 36 years old.

Not only did fiber intake mediate cardiovascular risk, this research provides further evidence that poor dietary habits in youth kick start the damage that may not be found until adulthood. “The differences in fiber intake between individuals with stiffer compared with those with less stiff arteries were already present during adolescence,” the authors report.

Fruit, vegetables, and whole-grains are known to be high in fiber. While a lower total intake of fiber was associated with risk, these foods have a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that may also deliver the brunt of the benefits. In addition to arterial stiffness, vegetable intake had an inverse relationship to blood pressure, central obesity, and blood lipids—all factors linked to cardiovascular health.

The authors explain that arterial stiffness is linked to higher blood pressure, higher stress on the heart and reduced cardiac function. Conditions in childhood, such as sedentary lifestyle, central body fatness, and higher blood pressure, are known to increase arterial stiffness in adulthood. Adding to the growing list, these authors report that low intake of fiber in childhood may be a precursor to arterial stiffness.

Coupled with the report published in journal Pediatrics, these results are novel and timely. The national survey data suggests that “U.S. adolescents carry a substantial burden of CVD risk factors, especially those who are overweight or obese.” Increasing fiber intake to reduce children’s risk provides a simple solution to improve the health trajectory of the nation.


May AL et al. Provalence of Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors Among US Adolescents, 1999-2008. Pediatrics 2012; 129(6):1035-41. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-1082

Van de Laar RJJ et al. Lower lifetime dietary fiber intake is associated with carotid artery stiffness: the Amsterdam Growth and Health Longitudinal Sutyd. Am J Clin Nutr 2012. DOI: 10.3945/​ajcn.111.024703

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