Too Much Salt for Your Child?

Written by P. Humbargar

Image: imagerymajestic

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 90 percent of Americans eat more sodium (salt) than is recommended for a healthy diet. Under current guidelines, the minimum amount of sodium recommended for most people is 1500 mg, and the maximum amount is 2300 mg (about 1 teaspoon). It has been widely known for some time that too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure in adults, and a new study published in the journal, Pediatrics, shows that high sodium intake may lead to high blood pressure in children as well, especially if they are overweight.

The study included a representative sample of more than 6,200 U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 18. Of these children, 37 percent were overweight or obese, and all of the children, on average, consumed around 3,400 mg of sodium daily. (This is much more than the maximum recommended daily amount!)

The researchers found that children with higher sodium levels had higher rates of pre-high blood pressure and high blood pressure. Those with the highest sodium levels had twice the risk of having elevated blood pressure. Among overweight and obese children, those with the highest sodium levels had 3.5 times the risk. Thus, sodium intake had more of an impact on blood pressure in children who were overweight or obese.

The study clearly shows an association between sodium intake and blood pressure in children, but does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Other factors may be in play. Pediatric dietitian Lauren Graf, of Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City says, “A high intake of sodium may be a marker that there are other areas of the diet that aren’t so healthy, and it may suggest low intake of other nutrients that lower blood pressure, like calcium, magnesium and potassium.”

Graf also says that because it isn’t healthy for anyone to consume high levels of sodium in the long-term, parents need to be aware of the amount of sodium in their child’s diet but not necessarily focus on it. She recommends staying away from processed foods and giving children more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products.

Helping children consume less salt is a big challenge—especially for busy parents who often rely on the convenience of highly processed microwave-ready products and restaurant food, all of which almost always contain exorbitant amounts of sodium. Even foods considered healthy, such as vegetable soup and cottage cheese, can contain large amounts of sodium. And surprisingly, bread and bread products often contain a lot of salt, and can contribute a great deal of sodium to the diet since they tend to be eaten several times over the course of a day.

The top sources of sodium in the diet are: breads and rolls; cold cuts and cured meats; pizza; processed and fresh poultry (often injected with a sodium solution); soups; sandwiches (like cheeseburgers); cheese; pasta dishes; meat dishes; and snacks. The amount of sodium contained in these foods varies widely by brand, so it is wise to check the nutrition facts on the labels when shopping. Determining the amount of salt in restaurant food is more difficult, but many of the larger chains have nutrition facts for many menu items available online.

To help reduce sodium in the diet, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute offers the following tips:

-Buy fresh, plain frozen, or canned “with no salt added” vegetables.

-Use fresh poultry, fish, and lean meat, rather than canned or processed types.

-Use herbs, spices, and salt-free seasoning blends in cooking and at the table.

-Cook rice, pasta, and hot cereals without salt. Cut back on instant or flavored rice, pasta, and cereal mixes, which usually have added salt.

-Choose “convenience” foods that are lower in sodium. Cut back on frozen dinners, pizza, packaged mixes, canned soups or broths, and salad dressings—these often have a lot of sodium.

-Rinse canned foods, such as tuna, to remove some sodium.

-When available, buy low- or reduced-sodium or no-salt-added versions of foods.

-Choose ready-to-eat breakfast cereals that are lower in sodium.

Reducing salt in our diets and in our children’s diets is not an easy thing to do since high sodium foods are convenient and ubiquitous, but following these tips is a good place to start.

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