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Kids are consuming too much salt.

June 10, 2013

When my colleagues and I decide to meet for lunch, the first thing we request is the nutrition facts for the restaurant we visit. More times than not, I am disappointed when I can’t find an entrée that had less than 1,500mg of sodium, even on the children’s menu. I usually settle for the lowest sodium option that I can put together. However, while looking around the restaurant, I can’t help but notice that some patrons still add salt to their meal, despite the higher-sodium choices.

After working in the field of nutrition for over 10 years, I know that added salt is an acquired taste and a learned behavior. According to researchers, taste preference is influenced as early as the prenatal stage. That means, the foods that our mothers consumed while they carried us, and the foods they fed us during infancy, influence our likes and dislikes. It’s also been proven that children who were introduced to salt during infancy actually preferred salty snacks during their toddler years.

How much is too much?

So what’s the recommended amount of sodium intake for kids? According to the American Heart Association, the recommended daily amount is less than 1,500mg of sodium for individuals of all ages. This is equal to just over half a teaspoon of salt. However, toddlers should really be limited to 1,000mg per day because they are smaller and their kidneys can become stressed with a diet high in salt.

Consequences of a high-salt diet

Sadly, today’s generation of children have a growing affinity for salt. However, this love for salt does not come without consequences. A diet that is high in salt, or sodium, can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), which can result in heart disease and stroke. You may be thinking, “Well, only adults are at risk for these kinds of diseases.” While these diseases are usually associated with adults, children can be at risk for these diseases, too.

Why are children consuming so much salt?

We live in an age of convenience, where convenience foods have become a large part of our society’s diet. Prepackaged foods such as chips, crackers, mac-n-cheese, processed meats and fast foods can contain large amounts of sodium. And unfortunately, these foods are marketed to families as quick and easy solutions to snack time, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because children eat frequently throughout the day, they have a lot of opportunity to consume these high-sodium foods. Some toddlers consume over 3,000mg of salt on a given day!

Take a look at the following menus that consist of foods marketed to children to see just how easy it is to consume large amounts of sodium in a day:

Menu 1

Breakfast: Hot pocket = 484mg

Snack: 55 Gold fish crackers = 250mg

Lunch:  1 cup Macaroni and cheese (600mg) with hotdog (500mg) = 1,100mg

Snack:  10 baby carrots (80mg) and 2 Tbsp light ranch salad dressing (303) = 383mg

Dinner:  McDonald happy meal (chicken nuggets) = 690mg

Total Sodium: 2,907mg

Menu 2

Breakfast: 4 French Toast Sticks (310mg) with syrup (120mg) and strawberry milk (120mg) = 550mg

Snack: snack bag of pretzels = 452mg

Lunch: slice of cheese pizza (336mg), ½ apple (1mg) and whole milk (125mg) = 462mg

Snack:  8 saltine crackers (512) with 1 slice American cheese (223mg) = 735mg

Dinner:  1 cup store bought spaghetti and meatballs (750mg) with ¼ cup seasoned broccoli (104mg) and whole milk (125mg) = 979mg

Total sodium: 3,178mg

As you can see, it is pretty easy for a child to exceed the recommended amount of daily sodium intake when eating convenience foods.

How can I control my child's sodium intake?

  1. Read food labels. Choose foods that contain < 210mg of sodium per serving. And be sure to pay attention to the serving sizes – they can sneak up on you!
  2. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks. Most children who consume less than the recommended serving of fruits and vegetables (5 a day) consume a high amount of salt in their diet.
  3. Limit your child’s consumption of processed foods.
  4. Avoid adding salt to prepared foods and use salt sparingly when cooking.
  5. Ask for “no added salt” when eating out.
  6. Become familiar with spices and herbs that add flavor.
  7. Avoid fast food restaurants.
Here is a sample menu of healthy foods that can help keep your child’s consumption of sodium below the recommended daily amount: 

Breakfast: oatmeal with blueberries (130mg) and whole milk (125mg) = 255mg

Snack: 4-6 strawberries = 0mg

Lunch: 1 oz hummus (135mg), unsalted crackers (110mg), 5 baby carrots (40mg) and whole milk (125mg) = 410mg

Snack: ½ apple = 1mg

Dinner: green beans (1mg), ¼ chicken breast (60mg), roasted potatoes (155mg), and whole milk (125mg) = 401mg

Total Sodium: 1,007mg

While it may be easier to open up a prepackaged food item out of the freezer, this choice may not be the healthiest for your kids. Be aware of how much sodium your kids are consuming in a day to help decrease their risk of heart-related diseases and promote good health and nutrition!

How do you control the amount of sodium in your child’s diet?