As any parent knows, cultivating a healthy relationship between your child and broccoli is no small task. Let’s face it, fresh fruit can even be a chore when there are gummies and cookies to compete with. But a new study may convince you to stay the course. The results of a twenty-six-year study out of Finland’s University of Turku shed light on the benefits of early childhood dietary counseling in preventing heart disease. And considering heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, and nearly half of the population has heart disease, establishing healthy eating habits early on is nothing short of critical.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of people die from heart disease-related symptoms in the U.S. every year—that’s one person every 37 seconds. And while some genetic factors can increase your risk for developing heart disease, diet and lifestyle play much larger roles in increasing or decreasing risk than any other factor.

So early intervention, in the form of awareness, education and habit-building, plays an enormous role in someone's lifelong eating habits and heart health, according to the Special Turku Coronary Risk Factor Intervention Project (STRIP) of the University of Turku, Finland.

"The aim of the study was to investigate whether the persons who participated in the dietary counseling continued to have a more heart-healthy diet and a lower serum cholesterol level than the control group", Assistant Professor and vice-principal investigator Katja Pahkala from the University of Turku noted in a statement.

The Special Turku Coronary Risk Factor Intervention Project followed more than 1,100 families starting when children were seven months of age—about the time when solid foods are typically introduced.

The families were put into two groups: one receiving regular dietary counseling promoting a heart-healthy diet according to the nutritional recommendations. The other control group received only basic education provided by Finnish maternity and child health clinics and school health care. The children were followed for twenty years.

"The research shows that regular dietary counseling starting in infancy has positive impact on the quality of fat in the diet, as well as on the serum cholesterol level, insulin sensitivity, and blood pressure. In addition, the clustering of adverse cardiovascular health markers is less common is the group that participated in the dietary counseling than in the control group", Pahkala said.

The subjects were asked to participate in a follow-up study again at age 26. About half of the initial participants took part in the follow-up.

And the results may convince you to keep putting broccoli on the plate, no matter how much they resist.

Healthy Eating Starts Young

According to the researchers, the group that received the additional counseling showed sustained benefits in overall serum and LDL (bad) cholesterol over the control group. They also showed better insulin sensitivity than the control group.

"As a whole, the results support the idea that counseling on a heart-healthy diet starting in childhood has a positive impact on cardiovascular health, which is sustained after discontinuation of the active counseling", Pahkala said.

These findings mirror other research that points to the benefit of maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy, too. Fetuses eat what mommy feeds them, and they will recognize the taste of healthy foods for the rest of their lives.

If you’re in the “my kid will not eat vegetables even if they’re covered in chocolate” camp, first: You're not alone. Millions of parents fight this battle daily. But there’s some good news, too. Even if you missed that first window when solids started, repeated exposure to healthy foods leads to eventual acceptance. It can take more than 20 exposures to a particular food like steamed spinach to accept a new taste. It doesn’t help that the default response from people under the age of 10 is often “yuck!” but it is possible to help your child move past this.

The best tool in your super-cool-parent arsenal? It may seem counterintuitive, but it's actually in keeping your cool, and not talking up healthy foods too much. The more you draw attention to the “need” to eat the broccoli, the more it will sit there uneaten. Keep cooking and offering healthy foods night after night. Get creative in the kitchen and try string beans one night, brussel sprouts the next, and broccoli a third. And have your child help you prepare the food. Kids are far more likely to eat—and enjoy!—what they helped make. If you live in a place where you can, grow foods together if possible, even in a windowsill planter. Even small pots of herbs can ignite an appreciation for healthy foods. Sprouting is another easy, delicious, and nutritious exercise for littles.

Should you hide veggies in sauces and smoothies? Yes and no. Add them wherever you can, but talk about what’s “hidden” in that green smoothie or the butternut squash mac and cheese. These are great opportunities to involve your kids in making the food and seeing the potential the plant kingdom offers. When they know that creamy smoothie is made with two handfuls of spinach, they're more likely to want to try raw leaves. Maybe not the first time, but they'll get there eventually.

Also, keep in mind that taste buds take years to develop. And the reason kids may not like a certain food, is because they’re hypersensitive to the bitter compounds in vegetables, especially the sulphuric Brassicas like broccoli. That’s why different preparations are so helpful in finding what works for your child.

Diet matters. We know that now more than ever. And while it may seem like your children can subsist just fine on grilled cheese and Lunchables in perpetuity, the reality is a bit more chilling. But the good news is quite hopeful, too: If we start them out on a healthy diet as early as possible, they’re more likely to stick with it. And stick around a long, long time, too.

More From The Beet