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About SickKids

June 18, 2013

Preschoolers’ eating behaviours are associated with cholesterol levels

boy and girl eating in front of TV

By Nino Meese-Tamuri

The eating habits preschoolers develop at a very young age can influence their cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk, according to a study in the current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). Researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and St. Michael’s Hospital linked poor eating habits in preschoolers to elevated levels of non-HDL cholesterol. Non-HDL cholesterol levels act as an indicator of future cardiovascular risk.

“We are aware that high cholesterol levels can be an important health indicator in adults and adolescents, but this is the first time we established the link between eating behaviours and cholesterol levels in preschool age children,” said Dr. Catherine Birken, the study’s senior author, Paediatrician and Associate Scientist at SickKids and Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto.

The study recruited 1076 children between the ages of three and five from Toronto’s TARGet Kids! practice based research network. They examined potential links between non-HDL cholesterol levels and a variety of behaviours.  Parents filled out a nutritional risk questionnaire to help the research team assess eating habits, screen time, food intake, the use of supplements and other parental concerns surrounding activity levels and growth. Surprisingly, the researchers found food intake did not seem to directly influence cholesterol levels. Instead, a direct link was found between poor eating behaviours such as eating while watching TV and elevated cholesterol levels. The link was independent of age, sex, birth weight, BMI, parental BMI, gestational diabetes and parental ethnicity.

“Our results open up an additional avenue for positive intervention at a preschool age. These findings will allow the development and testing of interventions to instill positive eating habits from a very early age on,” says Dr. Navindra Persaud, the study’s lead author and family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital.”

The researchers recommend that parents introduce their children to healthy food options early and let kids use their own internal cues (instead of parental cues or cues from the TV) to determine the timing, pace and amount they consume.  

TARGet Kids! is a collaboration between family physicians, paediatricians and researchers from SickKids, St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto. The program follows children from birth with the aim of understanding and preventing common nutrition problems in the early years and their impact on health and disease later in life. This TARGet Kids! study was supported by the CIHR Institute of Nutrition Metabolism and Diabetes (INMD), Physician Services Incorporated, the St. Michael's Hospital Foundation, and the SickKids Foundation.