If I asked you what nutrient you thought your children consume too much of, would sodium make the cut? When I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends this question, it was no surprise that concern over sodium was trumped by concern about the amount of carbohydrate, sugar and fat kids consume. But too much sodium in children's diets is something worth paying attention to. It can increase their risks for disease and contribute to other less-than healthy behaviors that compromise their growth, development and overall health.
According to a 2012 study in Pediatrics, sodium intake was positively linked with a greater risk for high blood pressure among US children and adolescents. The researchers found that overweight and obese children were especially at risk for the blood-pressure raising effects of excess sodium intake. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death among American men and women.
Another study published in the May 2013 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a link between higher dietary sodium intake and consumption of fluids—especially sugar-sweetened beverages. Researchers concluded that, in children, too much dietary sodium may contribute to greater intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages and energy that can inevitably lead to unhealthy weight gain.
According to data from What We Eat in America, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009-2010, children—especially school-aged kids—consume more sodium than they should. The average daily sodium intake of two to five year-olds is 2,307 milligrams—the amount you'd find in about one teaspoon of salt. Six to 11 year-olds average about 2969 milligrams of sodium daily, and twelve to 19 year-olds—especially teen boys—consume the most sodium, and average about 3,585 milligrams daily.
Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that about half of us aged two and older aim for less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily. The other half—those aged 51 and older, and adults and children who are African American and/or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease—are encouraged to taper intake to 1,500 milligrams daily. That's the amount currently recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA).
Although a new report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) supports widespread reductions in sodium intake, it says there isn't enough evidence to encourage the general population to lower intake to 1,500 milligrams--the lower limit set by current federal guidelines and the amount recommended by the AHA.
In a press release, the AHA calls the IOM report incomplete and disagrees with its key conclusions.
Still, many school-aged children—especially adolescents who increasingly eat away from home and have more of a say in what, where and how much they eat—consume at least 30 to 50 percent more sodium than upper recommendations. Cutting back to achieve current recommended sodium levels is a prudent step children can take to improve the quality of their diets and pave the way for a healthier future.
Here are five ways to help children shake out at least some sodium from their diets.
Know where it flows. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the top 10 sodium sources among children are pizza, breads and rolls, poultry, cold cuts and cured meats, sandwiches, savory snacks (like popcorn and potato, tortilla, and corn chips), soups, cheese, mixed pasta dishes and frankfurters and sausage. Offer these foods to your children less often and in smaller portions alongside more healthful, lower sodium fare.
Get the Facts. Teach your children to read Nutrition Facts Panels. Show them how much sodium different products contain and compare amounts in similar items. Choose items that are "low sodium" (140 milligrams or less per serving), "very low sodium" (35 milligrams or less per serving) or "sodium-free" (less than 5 milligrams per serving) more often. Items with 150 to 230 milligrams of sodium per serving provide about 10 percent of the sodium children should aim for daily.
Fill up on Fruits and Vegetables. Offering colorful produce—fresh, canned or frozen (with little or no sodium added)—provides potassium, a key nutrient that dampens the potentially negative effects of a high sodium diet. Even small portions fill up children's stomachs and leave less room for saltier snacks. Some delicious options to have as a snack or alongside dinner include fruit kebobs, fresh sliced fruit sprinkled with cinnamon, a piece of whole fruit, sliced fresh fruit or fresh or unsweetened frozen berries over low-fat yogurt or as part of a smoothie, or fresh vegetable slices dipped in some vinaigrette or a low-sodium bean dip.
Snack smarter. To reduce sodium intake from packaged snack foods, children can swap regular pretzels for unsalted ones, or replace salty store-bought popcorn with popcorn popped in canola oil and topped with black pepper, oregano, chili powder or other no-salt seasonings. Raw or dry-roasted, unsalted nuts and whole grain ready-to-eat cereals like Shredded Wheat are also low sodium options.
Cook more, eat out less. Follow Michael Pollan's advice to get back to basics and cook more at home. Eating less fast food and restaurant food—notorious for having too many calories, too much fat and too much sodium—will naturally help you and your family cut back on sodium. It'll probably even help you eat more nutritious foods and curb calorie intake without even knowing it.
How do you and your family reduce your sodium intake?
Image of young mum chopping vegetables with twin daughters in a family home kitchen via Shutterstock.