The Scoop on Food

The 10 Saltiest Foods In Kids' Diets Might Surprise You

Why a high-sodium diet can be harmful to kid, and which foods to watch out for. 

Grilled cheese sandwich and soup Shutterstock
We already know that kids are gobbling up way too much sugar and that high-sugar diets can be a health risk. Well, file this under "More Bad News": New research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that kids across all ages and demographics are also consuming too much sodium—and certain foods seem to be the biggest culprits.

Researchers looked at the diets of more than 2,000 children ages 6-18. Although healthy sodium limits vary, from 1,900mg per day for kids ages 4-8 to 2,300mg for ages 14 and older, the study found that average daily sodium intakes across the board top 3,000mg (teens took in more than 3,500mg).

Here's the problem with salty diets in childhood: A high-salt diet can impact blood pressure. One in nine kids ages 8-17 has blood pressure that's higher than normal—and high blood pressure in childhood is a risk factor for hypertension later in life. Childhood salt intake can have another powerful effect by shaping taste preferences. A kid who eats a salty diet is more likely to prefer that flavor and become a grown-up who eats a high-salt diet too.

Researchers also found that these 10 foods contributed nearly half of the day's sodium for kids:

  1. Pizza
  2. Mexican dishes like tacos and burritos
  3. Sandwiches (including fast-food sandwiches)
  4. Breads, rolls, and buns
  5. Cold cuts and cured meats
  6. Soups
  7. Savory snacks like potato chips
  8. Cheese
  9. Plain milk
  10. Poultry

Some foods on this list—like pizza, chips, and fast-food sandwiches—are no-brainers. But you may be thrown off by number nine: plain milk. And does this mean you should stop buying bread, cheese, and chicken?

When cutting back on sodium, I think there's a right way and a wrong way to approach it, especially with kids. So here's my advice:

DO focus first on foods eaten away from home at restaurants, including fast food. Restaurant food is notoriously high in sodium—not only at fast-food joints but also sit-down places too. Eating out less frequently is the best way to trim sodium from the diet.

DO cut back on salty snacks. Salty packaged foods like chips and cheese puffs are empty calories with no real nutrition. Save those as "sometimes" snacks and give kids fresh-food snacks most of the time.

DO take some easy steps to reduce sodium, like draining and rinsing canned beans and vegetables, which can remove sodium by up to 40 percent.

DON'T fret about healthy foods with naturally occurring sodium, like plain milk and yogurt. These foods contain nutrients kids need like protein, vitamins, and minerals.

DON'T put away the salt shaker. A little bit of salt can make healthy foods, like a pan of roasted vegetables, so much more appealing to kids, which encourages them to eat more of it. Plus, veggies are a good source of potassium, a mineral that may actually help counter the negative effects of sodium and help keep blood pressure at a healthy level.

DON'T go overboard. There's no need to switch to salt-free versions of products and stress over every food label. If you're limiting restaurant and highly-processed foods and focusing on mostly fresh foods for your family, eating salted nuts as a snack or having an occasional bowl of canned soup isn't a big deal.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, PintePinterePintestrest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.