Can 8-Year-Old Children Exhibit Signs of Heart Disease?

Gary Taubes, an American writer on nutrition and diet, wrote the following excerpt in his book Why We Get Fat.

A young German pediatrician named Hilde Bruch moved to America, settled in New York City , and was “startled,” as she later wrote, by the number of fat children she saw - “really fat ones, not only in clinics, but on the streets and subways and in schools.”   In fact, fat children in New York were so conspicuous that other European immigrants would ask Bruch about it, assuming that she would have an answer. What is the matter with American children? They would ask. Why are they so bloated and blown up? Many would say they’d never seen so many children in such a state.

When Hilde Bruch moved to the United States in 1934, World War II hadn’t even happened yet. Ther were no glaring distractions or ingredients in food that would jeopardize our health. There were no video games, there was no high fructose corn syrup, it was far easier to lead a healthier lifestyle. So what happened?

Taubes continues:

1934 was the depths of the Great Depression, an era of soup kitchens and bread lines.  One in four children were said to be malnourished. Bruch published a series of reports on her exhaustive studies of many of the obese children she had treated.   From interviews with her patients and families, she learned that these obese children did indeed eat excessive amounts of food. Telling the them to eat less, though, just didn’t work, and no amount of instruction or compassion, counseling, or exhortations, of either children or parents-seemed to help.  

In my article, Why Most Restaurants Never Satisfy Your Hunger, we learned that wheat is an appetite stimulant and it is extremely difficult to become full when consuming wheat with your meal.    

What is so surprising to me is that when I refer to when American’s were “healthy”, I typically refer back to the 1950s and 60s. According to Bruch, we were already well on our way toward our obesity epidemic at that time.

Let’s fast forward from 1934 to our current state. The Center for Disease Control, CDC, has estimated that about 17 percent of our kids are now considered obese. This is more than a 3-fold increase since 1970.  Some researchers wondered whether obesity raised the risk of heart disease in children.

Linyuan Jing, a postdoctoral fellow with Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa, took 40 children (half were obese and half were of normal weight) between the ages of 8 and 16 years of age and conducted an M.R.I. Scan on their hearts.  What they found was alarming. 27 percent of the obese kids had more muscle mass in their left ventricular region of their heart 12 percent had a thicker heart muscle overall. “Both are considered indicators of heart impairment, “ said Jing.   In 40% of the obese children, the heart muscle had already reduced the ability to pump blood. Unfortunately, these children are considered “high risk” for heart disease. Kids as young as 8 years old showed evidence of heart disease.

To add to the heart disease, Jing said, “Some of the obese children in the study were struggling with health complications often associated with excess weight, including asthma, high blood pressure and depression, the researchers said. But none displayed customary warning signs of heart disease such as fatigue, dizziness or shortness of breath.”

What was really alarming to me was that some children were excluded from the study due to the fact that they could not fit inside of the MRI scanning machine. Children with diabetes were also excluded from the study. Sadly, we are talking about 8-12 year olds, not middle aged men or women.

Jing said parents have a responsibility to help their children maintain a healthy weight. They should buy healthy foods instead of cheap fast food and fruit juice, which is high in sugar but low in fiber.  Parents should also limit TV, computer and video game time, while encouraging more outdoor activities, she said. "In addition, schools and communities need to do a better job at educating both the parents and children about the health risks of overweight and obesity," said Jing.

The American Heart Association also concluded from a 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that 91% of children aged 2-19 scored poorly on diet measures stating “Their diets consisted of mostly grain-based desserts and sugary drinks.”    In fact, the lead researcher, Julia Steinberger, MD, MS, director for the pediatric cardiology at the University of Minnesota “blamed poor nutrition choices as a primary factor for poor heart health in kids.”

What Dr. Steinberger concluded was exactly what Dr. Bruch concluded back in 1939. Poor diet. The difference is that our diet is even worse now with greater prevalence of HFCS and sugars.

What can you do?

Significantly reduce or eliminate wheat from your diet. Understand that each time your child consumes wheat, they are becoming hungrier and  hungrier. As a result they will tend to overeat quantities of food as well as more poor food choices. This isn’t anything new for our country. According to Dr. Bruch, we have been battling childhood obesity since 1934...and it doesn’t appear we are winning.

Steven Zahn

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