Cholesterol levels in U.S. children
improved in the past two decades as makers of cookies, crackers
and French fries responded to public concern that trans fats
used in their products may be harmful to health.
The prevalence of elevated total cholesterol dropped to 8.1
percent for those ages 6 to 19 from 2007 to 2010 compared with
11 percent from 1988 to 1994, according to a study today in the
Journal of the American Medical Association. While no cause
analysis was conducted, lower fat intake and more exercise may
have contributed to the improvement, said Brian Kit, a
researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and
the study’s lead author.
The most pivotal contribution may have occurred as food
companies reworked products to reduce or eliminate trans fat,
leading to dietary improvements that didn’t require consumers to
make conscious choices, said Sarah de Ferranti, author of an
editorial accompanying the study. McDonald’s Corp. (MCD), the world’s
largest restaurant chain, and Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) are among
companies that have reduced the use of artificial trans fat,
which is associated with high cholesterol and heart disease.
“There is an increased awareness about the harms in trans
fats, so manufacturers have removed them,” said De Ferranti,
who directs the preventive cardiology clinic at Boston
Children’s Hospital. “It’s a lot harder for us to make the
decision to eat healthy or to exercise.”
While trans fatty acids occur naturally in some meat and
dairy products, most trans fat is found in treated cooking oils
and processed foods. Trans fat is commonly used by foodmakers to
improve shelf life and taste. Eating too much trans fat may
increase the risk of heart disease, according to the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration.
While the cholesterol outcomes are encouraging and may help
curb heart disease and stroke risks, De Ferranti and Kit said
the results must be taken in context. Non-high-density
lipoproteins, which are a predictor of cardiovascular risk, were
elevated in 10 percent of young people in the period ending in
2010, compared with about 14 percent in 1994.
“Despite the overall improvements in blood cholesterol
content, still 1 in 10 children has an elevated blood
cholesterol,” Kit said in a telephone interview. “Continued
monitoring of blood cholesterol in youth will be important,”
Childhood obesity, which is tied to high cholesterol,
climbed 43 percent to reach 18 percent from 1988 to 2010, based
on data from the Atlanta-based CDC. That trend must be addressed
to tackle cholesterol in the long run, De Ferranti said.
“We’re not making very big inroads into obesity, so we may
lose some of the benefits over time,” she said.
The cholesterol study was based on data collected from more
than 16,000 people who participated in the National Health and
Nutrition Examination Survey over three time periods. Further
analysis should be completed to determine if the change is
sustainable, De Ferranti said.
“The next data steps will be important,” she said. “We
will still have to think about screening for cholesterol in
To contact the reporter on this story:
Jeanna Smialek in New York at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Reg Gale at