"We definitely have to take a step back and look at the whole obesity epidemic going on right now. Americans are more overweight and obese than they have been ever, and that reflects on the health status of children as well," says Candice O'Hare, a registered dietitian at Saint Francis Medical Center who works with the hospital's Healthy Weigh program.
Cholesterol is a point of concern, and it's based very much on the culture we live in, says O'Hare: "We live in a whole culture that has high-fat, high-calorie foods, and is dependent on convenience-type foods." Americans keep very busy schedules, and having a family dinner at home doesn't happen as often as it should. Physical activity has decreased as well, says O'Hare.
Children are not typically tested for cholesterol unless they have a family history or are already obese, but high cholesterol levels actually start long before they become a problem.
"Elevated cholesterol at a young age starts the pattern of 'hardening of the arteries' sooner than it should," explains Dr. Jamie Harrison of Southeast Primary Care. And since most children have parents who are not very old themselves, they may not see any complications yet in their own health, says O'Hare. If that's the case, she says, parents need to "get the ball rolling" by looking to grandparents, aunts and uncles for family history of cholesterol, and also evaluating lifestyle factors like diet and exercise.
"If you're consuming a diet high in fat, particularly saturated and trans fats, that can be an area of concern. But also, if your children are overweight, you should probably address that with your doctor. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to track cholesterol levels and you can start to have those conversations," says O'Hare.
Remember that your children will follow in your footsteps, whether it's how you shop or how you eat. If you bypass healthy fruits and vegetables at the grocery store in favor of high-calorie convenience foods, your children will learn to shop the same way. Controlling cholesterol levels should really be a family effort, says O'Hare.
Take small steps to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and a variety of proteins in your diet, including lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts, beans, peas and soy products. Limit saturated fat and higher-fat meat products in your family diet.
"Encourage play outside instead of in front of the TV," says Harrison. "Reduction (of cholesterol) through diet and exercise is much preferred over medications in children."
"Be active as a family," O'Hare adds. "Take walks together after dinner. A lot of times we don't see families being active together."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.