American kids eat too much sugar and salt, they don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, and far too many are overweight, a new study shows.
The findings may not surprise parents, but they are disturbing to the researchers, who say these children are being set up for early heart disease.
None of the 8,900 children aged 2 to 11 who were surveyed were doing everything right. But even more striking: Most were missing the goal on three out of four measures of healthy living.
"Our findings indicate that, in general, children start with pretty good blood pressure," said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, who oversaw the study.
"But if they have a horrible diet, it will drive a worsening body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels."
The study comes from a nationally representative group of children, and the researchers say their findings can be translated to U.S. kids as a whole.
Fewer than 1 percent of the children in the study had four or five of the main components of a healthy diet: eating four and a half cups or more of fruits and vegetables each day; three servings of whole grains a day; two servings of fish a week; minimal amounts of sugar; and below 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
Just 3 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls ate enough whole grains daily. "More than 50 percent of children consumed more than the recommend amount of sugar-sweetened beverages," the researchers wrote.
Fewer than 10 percent ate the recommended four to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, the survey found. And 30 percent were overweight or obese, Lloyd-Jones and colleagues reported in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
And these bad habits put many on the road to heart disease. About 40 percent of the kids already had poor or worrying cholesterol levels.
"It seems that children in the United States are losing their ideal cardiovascular health status," the researchers wrote.
Many studies have shown heart disease starts young — with artery-clogging blockages starting sometimes as young as age 3. Ultrasound examinations of children as young as 10 have shown they can have arteries that are already as clogged as those in some middle-aged people.
A study published last year showed that nearly a third of kids screened at pediatric clinics in Houston had unhealthy cholesterol levels by age 9 to 11.
But the studies also show an easy fix. One found young women who had reported eating the most fruits and vegetables in their 20s were 40 percent less likely to have dangerously blocked arteries in their 40s.
Other studies show that eating a diet loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, low in saturated fats and low on fatty meat, dramatically cuts the risk of heart disease and stroke.