From pediatricians to First Lady Michelle Obama, we’re working to reverse our childhood obesity epidemic.
But some health scientists, including those at Pritikin, are pointing out that it’s not just overweight children who are in trouble. Our thin kids are, too.
High cholesterol in children
No matter their shape on the outside, on the inside many U.S. children have arteries that are starting to clog up with cholesterol-laden plaque.
Children’s blood fats, called triglycerides, are off the charts. Kids both chubby and thin are developing previously adults-only diseases like pre-diabetes and hypertension. They are on a trajectory that may put them in the coronary care unit younger than any generation ever.
Thin, but with risk factors for heart disease
Sure, obesity contributes to these cardiovascular-related woes, but if we focus only on obesity, we’re missing the millions of thin children who are also at risk.
Since 2002, the Pritikin Family Health Camp at the Pritikin health resort in Florida has paid as much attention to children’s hearts as to their waistlines. Its summer 2015 program begins June 21.
At Pritikin, kids start out by getting all the major risk factors for heart disease evaluated, including LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose levels, and blood pressure.
13, normal weight, and pre-diabetic
What the physicians and other educators at Pritikin have found is that many normal-weight kids, like 13-year-old Sarah who was recently at Pritikin, are not normal within.
Sarah’s blood glucose (108) revealed she was pre-diabetic. Her insulin (19) was more than double normal levels. Though competing on her school track team helped keep her thin, it wasn’t enough to fight the damage her daily diet of fast food, Cokes, and candy bars was doing to her blood sugar.
Pritikin Family Health Camp data
In recently published research, UCLA scientists reported on 33 boys and girls who attended the Pritikin Family Health Camp. What made this study unique is that it compared normal-weight kids with obese kids.
The investigation found that the two groups were not all that different: Both lean and obese kids arrived at Pritikin with alarmingly high risk factors for heart disease. In fact, the normal-weight kids had on average higher levels of LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides than the obese kids.
The good news: Within the two-week Pritikin Family Program, all these risk factors were ameliorated, and in all children, both thin and overweight.1
Pritikin Family Health Camp
At the Pritikin Family Health Camp, both kids and parents learn how fun and rewarding a healthy lifestyle can be. Give Your Family a Healthy Start
Korean War soldiers
As far back as 1953, long before there was a child obesity epidemic, scientists suspected that heart disease could have its origins in arteries far younger than previously thought, and in lean, supposedly healthy bodies. That’s when a landmark study was published describing the high frequency of advanced coronary artery lesions in young U.S. men killed in the Korean War. A shocking 77% of the soldiers (their average age was 22) had coronary artery disease. 2
In 1980, another classic study, from Johns Hopkins University, looked at 951 American children, ages 6 to 19. It measured each child’s body mass index (BMI) and skin-fold thickness (fatness), plus heart disease risk factors like cholesterol.
The goal of the study was to determine the degree to which being obese could be held accountable for rising rates of each individual risk factor, including blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and glucose. The scientists found that 3 to 16% of these risk factors were accountable to obesity, but everything else was not.3
“…a child can be perfectly thin and have awful risk factors.”
Explains Dr. Robert Vogel, leading cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, “This study found correlates with obesity, but none were very strong, which is to say that a child can be perfectly thin and have awful risk factors.”
Research in the 1990s also found that a healthy weight does not necessarily mean healthy arteries. The large multi-center study (Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth, or PDAY) based at Louisiana State University Medical Center examined the autopsies of 1,532 young people ages 15 through 34 who died of external causes, principally trauma. While the overweight youth were more likely than their normal-weight peers to have early coronary artery disease, or fatty streaks, the normal-weight youth were hardly immune: 20% had fatty streaks. 4, 5
Bogalusa Heart Study
In 1998, the Bogalusa Heart Study from Tulane University analyzed the autopsies of 204 American youth ages 2 and older who had died, primarily from accidents. The researchers found a significant degree of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up) in the thin as well as overweight youth.6
The take-away from these studies, states Dr. William McCarthy from UCLA School of Public Health, is that “obesity is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain heart disease risk in youth. Obesity is an independent risk factor, but no more important than smoking or having high LDL cholesterol.”
Healthy lifestyle education
So where do we go from here? The Pritikin Family Health Camp is a good model, where children – all children, not just overweight/obese ones – have their heart disease risk factors assessed, and, if needed, brought under control with the healthy lifestyle the program teaches.
And right alongside the kids, their parents attend the adults’ Pritikin All-Inclusive Program. Together, then, “the whole family’s on board. Everyone returns home excited and motivated to live well,” observes Pritikin’s Director of Nutrition Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD. “Every summer, it’s a joy to see.”
Put simply, when kids learn to love healthy food like fruit, veggie wraps, and bean burritos, and make fitness a part of their daily life, amazing things happen. Healthy habits stick.
“What better gift for our children?” smiles Pritikin physician Danine Fruge, MD, and mother of three.
Here are five profiles of children who attended the Pritikin Family Health Camp.
Annie, 10 | High cholesterol in children
Annie, normal weight, arrived at Pritikin with a total cholesterol of 248, a number you’d usually see in pot-bellied, 60-year-old men, not slender little girls. After just two weeks of eating well and exercising at Pritikin, Annie’s cholesterol dropped 35% to 162.
Peter, 11 | High triglycerides in children
Peter, though not overweight, had blood so milky-white with fat molecules that it looked like cream. He entered Pritikin with triglycerides that were 283 (and this was from a fasting blood test). Within two weeks of starting Pritikin’s food and fitness program, Peter’s triglycerides shot down 71% to a healthy, normal 81.
Austin, 11 | High cholesterol in children
With a BMI of 14, Austin looked the picture of health, as thin and wiry as a middle school cross-country runner. But his test results revealed that his LDL (bad) cholesterol would concern doctors of adult patients. Within two weeks of starting the Pritikin Program, Austin’s LDL plummeted 40% – from 117 to a very healthy 70.
Mollie, 12 | High cholesterol in children
Mollie also entered Pritikin looking thin and fit, with a BMI of 20. But her LDL, 166, was scary. Within two weeks, it tumbled 58% to 69. “It was easy,” says Molly. “I had to stop eating cheeseburgers and pizza every day, but it was really okay because I found plenty of new foods that I liked.”
Alex, 13 | High blood glucose in children
Alex arrived at Pritikin slightly overweight (though no one back home ever thought of him as fat). But his blood glucose was so high that he was diagnosed pre-diabetic. At home, he drank two liters of Coke a day and never ate anything healthy. All that changed at Pritikin. He quickly developed a liking for sparkling water and fruit. Within days, his glucose fell to normal ranges. He left Pritikin no longer a pre-diabetic.
Nearly 70% of teens in America (all teens, both thin and fat) show the initial stages of fatty streaks, or early heart disease, in their arteries. One in 10 teens in the U.S (all teens) have the metabolic syndrome, which dramatically increases their risk of diabetes and heart disease. What we have among our youth in America is not just an obesity epidemic. We have a disease epidemic.
The Pritikin Family Health Camp is groundbreaking because it takes the focus off obese kids and puts it where it should be – on all kids. Lifestyle changes like those taught at Pritikin, if implemented nationally, could ensure that all children get the attention they need to avoid heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular ills.
Pritikin’s diet and exercise program also shows that we do not need to invest millions in medications for children, with negative and/or unknown side effects. We can begin by getting back to the basics. Good healthy food, plenty of exercise, and healthy habits that set the stage for a lifetime of good health.
- 1Am J Physiol – Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 2013; 305: R552.
- 2 JAMA, 1953; 152: 1090.
- 3 Am J Epidemiology, 1980; 112 (4): 524.
- 4 Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis & Vascular Biology, 1997; 17 (1): 95.
- 5 Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis & Vascular Biology, 1995; 15 (4): 431.
- 6 N Engl J Med, 1998; 338: 1650.