Pass on the Salt

January 27, 2017
DREW WILLIS FOR TIME FOR KIDS

American kids consume too much salt. That puts them at risk for heart problems later in life.

Hamburgers, French fries, potato chips, popcorn, and pizza. There is no denying these foods are tasty. But often, it’s the added salt that makes them so appealing. One result: U.S. kids are eating way too much salty fare.

Table salt is about 40% sodium. Our bodies need some sodium to work properly. But too much of it is not healthy. The salt shaker is to blame for just 11% of the sodium kids consume. The rest has been added to food before it even reaches the table.

How does this microwave popcorn measure up? Look for foods with less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.

EKATERINA MINAEVA—ALAMY

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) looked at the eating habits of 2,142 children between the ages of 6 and 18. It found that their average sodium intake was 3,256 milligrams per day. That equals nearly 1-1/2 teaspoons each day, which is 50% more than current guidelines recommend.

Zerleen Quader is the study’s lead author. “Eating too much sodium now can set [kids] up for health problems later,” she told TFK.

Salty Surprises

Researchers discovered that pizza and Mexican food topped the list of sodium sources in kids’ diets. More than half the sodium they consumed came from store-bought food. The sodium wasn’t limited to one meal or snack. It was sprinkled throughout kids’ diets.

Much of the sodium that kids eat comes from processed foods. But potato chips and other salty snacks aren’t the only culprits. There are sneaky sodium sources—like bread and cold cuts—adding to the salt overload. See “Rethink Lunch” to see how much sodium is packed into a typical turkey-and-cheese sandwich.

Even the ketchup in this meal comes packed with sodium.

NICO KAI—GETTY IMAGES

Take Heart

All this added salt can raise blood pressure and, with it, the risk of a heart attack and other health problems. Today, 1 in 9 children has raised blood pressure. There’s good news though. Lowering salt intake can lower blood pressure.

That, of course, is easier said than done. The more you eat salty foods, the more you develop a taste for them. The key to changing your diet is to start small. “Small changes in sodium in foods are not usually noticed,” Quader says. Eventually, she adds, the effort will reset a kid’s taste buds so the salt cravings stop.

Bridget Murphy is a dietitian at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. She suggests kids try adding spices like oregano to their food, instead of salt. Eating fruits and veggies, cutting back on packaged foods, and choosing low-sodium versions of snacks will also do the trick.

Need a little inspiration? Murphy advises focusing on the immediate effects of a diet that is high in sodium. High blood pressure can make it difficult to be active. “Do you want to be able to think clearly and perform well in school?” she asks. “If you’re an athlete, do you want to run faster?” If you answered yes to these questions, then it’s time to shake the salt habit.

GETTY IMAGES

Rethink Lunch

A turkey sandwich can pack a big sodium punch. Add a teaspoon of mustard and the total rises to 1,522 milligrams (mg). Kids ages 9 to 13 should get no more than 2,200 mg each day.

Zerleen Quader, of the CDC, suggests reading nutrition labels. “It’s surprising how much the sodium content for the same food can vary by brand,” she says. The sodium in packaged bread, for instance, can range from 80 mg to 230 mg per slice.