Children's Health and Wellness

Heart-Healthy Eating

What is heart-healthy eating?

A diet high in fat and cholesterol may contribute to the development of heart disease in adulthood. A heart-healthy diet may help prevent or treat high blood cholesterol levels. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition recommends that healthy children age 2 and older follow a diet low in fat (30% of calories from fat). These are the same recommendations for healthy adults. A diet high in fat, especially saturated fat, may increase your child's risk for heart disease and obesity in adulthood. It is important to teach your child about healthy eating so that he or she can make healthy food choices as an adult.

It is important not to put children younger than age 2 on a low-fat diet unless advised by your child's health care provider. Children younger than age 2 need fat in their diets to promote appropriate growth and development.

What is saturated fat?

Saturated fat is a type of fat found in foods and is usually solid at room temperature. This type of fat may raise the body's total blood cholesterol level more than other types of fat. It is recommended to limit saturated fat and replace it with unsaturated fat to help decrease the risk for heart disease. Some of the main sources of saturated fat include the following:

  • Butter

  • Cheeses

  • Fatty meats (bacon, hot dogs, ribs, and sausage)

  • Chicken skin

  • Whole milk

  • Ice cream

  • Pizza

  • Grain and dairy based desserts

  • Coconut oil

  • Palm oil

What is unsaturated fat?

Unsaturated fat is a type of fat in foods and is usually liquid at room temperature. This type of fat does not usually increase the body's total blood cholesterol level when eaten in moderate amounts. Foods high in unsaturated fats which can replace unhealthy fats include the following:

  • Olive oil

  • Canola oil

  • Safflower and sunflower oil

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Peanut butter

  • Corn oil and vegetable oils

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is made by the body and found in some foods. Cholesterol found in foods is called dietary cholesterol and is found only in animal foods, like the following:

  • Meat

  • Poultry

  • Fish

  • Eggs

  • Dairy products

Plant foods (grains, fruits, and vegetables) do not contain cholesterol. If the body's blood cholesterol gets too high, then cholesterol may build up in the blood vessels and cause damage. For decades, it has been recommended to limit the amount of cholesterol in your diet. However, recent evidence suggests cholesterol from food does not raise blood cholesterol levels as much as previously thought. 

Choose My Plate icon

Making healthy food choices

The MyPlate icon is a guideline to help you and your child eat a healthy diet. MyPlate can help you and your child eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat. The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared the following food plate to guide parents in selecting foods for children age 2 and older.

The MyPlate icon is divided into 5 food group categories, emphasizing the nutritional intake of the following:

  • Grains. Foods made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Make at least half of your grains whole grains. Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Vegetables. Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (dry beans and peas), and starchy vegetables. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut up, or pureed.

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk products, as well as those that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean with protein. Choose low-fat or lean cuts of meat and poultry. Vary your protein routine by choosing more fish, nuts, seeds, dried beans and peas.

Oils are not a food group, yet some, like vegetable and nut oils, contain essential nutrients and can be included in the diet in moderation. Others, like animal fats, are solid and should be avoided. Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet consisting of vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, and olive oil lowers the risk of heart disease.

Keeping your sodium intake to less than 2.3 grams of sodium a day lowers the risk of a heart attack.

Exercise and everyday physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan. 

Nutrition and activity tips

Suggestions for heart-healthy eating include:

  • Try to control when and where food is eaten by your children by providing regular daily meal times with social interaction and demonstration of healthy eating behaviors.

  • Involve children in the selection and preparation of foods. Teach them to make healthy choices by providing opportunities to select foods based on their nutritional value.

  • For children in general, reported dietary intakes of the following are low enough to be of concern by the USDA: vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Select foods with these nutrients when possible.

  • Most Americans need to reduce the number of calories they consume. When it comes to weight control, calories do count. Controlling portion sizes and eating nonprocessed foods helps limit calorie intake and increase nutrients.

  • Parents are encouraged to provide recommended serving sizes for children.

  • Parents are encouraged to limit children’s video, television watching, and computer use to less than 2 hours daily and replace the sedentary activities with activities that require more movement.

  • Children and adolescents need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days for maintenance of good health and fitness and for healthy weight during growth.

  • To prevent dehydration, encourage children to drink fluid regularly during physical activity and drink several glasses of water or other fluid after the physical activity is completed.

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 and to determine the appropriate dietary recommendations for your child’s age, gender, and physical activity level, visit the Online Resources page for the links to the and 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines sites. Please note that the MyPlate plan is designed for people older than age 2 who do not have chronic health conditions.

Always talk with your child’s health care provider regarding his or her healthy diet and exercise requirements.

Guidelines for decreasing fat intake

  • Increase intake of fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Bake, broil, or grill foods instead of frying.

  • Choose low-fat meats, like chicken, fish, turkey, lean pork, and lean beef (meat without visible fat and without skin).

  • Limit high-fat meats, like sausage, bacon, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, bologna, and fried meat.

  • Use fruits as dessert instead of high-fat desserts, like ice cream, cake, cookies.

  • Limit amounts of added fat, like margarine, butter, oil, salad dressing, and mayonnaise.

  • Use low-fat or fat-free products, like milk, cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, and ice cream.

Food adjustments

Consider the following examples of food for healthier eating:

Food product category

Eat less

Eat more

Meat and meat substitutes, poultry, fish, dry beans, and nuts

Regular beef, pork, lamb, regular ground beef, fatty cuts of meat

Poultry with skin, fried chicken

Fried fish

Regular lunch meat (bologna, salami, sausage, hot dogs)

Beef, pork, lamb, lean cuts (90 percent lean, well-trimmed before cooking)

Poultry without skin

Fish, shellfish

Processed meat prepared from lean meat

Dry beans and peas

Tofu and tempeh

Nuts and seeds


Fried eggs in butter

Egg whites

Egg substitutes

Dairy products

Milk: whole and 2% milk

Yogurt: whole milk types

Cheese: Regular cheeses (American, cheddar, Swiss, blue, Monterey Jack, cream cheese)

Frozen dairy desserts: regular ice cream

Milk: nonfat (skim) or low-fat

Yogurt: nonfat or low-fat

Cheese: low-fat or nonfat types

Frozen dairy desserts: low-fat or nonfat ice cream, low-fat or nonfat frozen yogurt

Fats and oils

Butter, lard, shortening, bacon fat, regular mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese, salad dressings, coconut oil, palm kernel, palm oil, and products with trans fats

Unsaturated oils: safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, canola, olive, peanut

Low-fat or nonfat mayonnaise, margarine, sour cream, cream cheese, and salad dressings


Refined grains (white flour, white rice), biscuits, cornbread, muffins, pancakes, breakfast pastries, doughnuts, waffles, granolas, fried rice, and packaged pasta and rice mixes

Whole-grain breads, pasta, rice, and cereals

Vegetables (dark green, red and orange, legumes, beans and peas, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables)

Vegetables fried or prepared with butter, cheese, cream sauce; or salt, olives

Fresh, frozen, or canned, without added fat, salt, or sauce

Fruit (whole, cut up, pureed, and 100% fruit juice)

Fried fruit or fruit served with butter or cream sauce

Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried

Print Source: Healthy diet in adults. UptoDate
Online Source: Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, USDA
Online Source: Overweight and Obesity: A Growing Problem, CDC
Online Source: Choose MyPlate 10 tips to a great plate, United States Department of Agriculture
Online Source: Build a healthy meal 10 tips for healthy meals, United States Department of Agriculture
Online Source: What Are “Oils”? United States Department of Agriculture
Online Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, United States Department of Agriculture
Online Source: Test your nutrition knowledge! American Heart Association
Online Source: The AHA's Recommendations for Physical Activity in Children, American Heart Association
Online Source: Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children, American Heart Association
Online Source: Limit Screen Time and Get Your Kids (and the Whole Family) Moving, American Heart Association
Online Source: Hey Kids, Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet, American Heart Association
Online Editor: Geller, Arlene
Online Editor: Sinovic, Dianna
Online Medical Reviewer: Finke, Amy, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Topiwala. Shehzad. MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/9/2015
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