Chicken nuggets, crackers and macaroni and cheese may be the only foods you can get your kids to eat, but experts agree, the sodium from these and other foods— not to mention the calories and fat— is setting the stage for a lifetime of health conditions and disease.
Kids do need a small amount of sodium in their diets— it’s essential for maintaining blood volume and blood pressure and for the function of muscles and nerves.
But the reality is that most kids are overdosing on it. In fact, a report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 90 percent of children eat at least 1,000 milligrams more sodium, daily,than they should be.
A diet high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is showing up in kids earlier and earlier. In fact, the same CDC report found that 1 in 6 children between ages 8 and 17 already has elevated blood pressure.
Over time, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. Plus, since high sodium foods are also high in calories and fat, kids who eat them have a higher risk for high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Salt is sneaky.
Dr. Dyan Hes, a pediatrician and medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City said her patients, whether they’re overweight or stick thin, are eating too much sodium.
“I think that parents aren’t intentionally giving their children salt, they just don’t realize how much salt is in the foods,” she said.
One of the major sources of sodium that parents aren’t paying attention to are the processed and packaged foods they’re dishing out. In fact, 43 percent of sodium comes from just a few foods, including pizza, cold cuts and cheese, a survey by the CDC found.
Portion sizes are out of control too, both at home and in restaurants, so kids are being served double, even triple the amount of sodium for their age. Plus, if they’re downing potato chips, crackers, or nuts from a bag, it might look like a single serving, but in reality, it could be much more.
Although the school lunch guidelines now call for less sodium and there are plans to scale back up to 50 percent by the year 2022, for now, it’s still making its way into the lunch line.
How to reduce your child’s sodium intake
Children ages 1 to 3 should have no more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium a day; for ages 4 to 8, 1,200 milligrams and for kids ages 9 to 18, 1,500 milligrams. Here are some ways to cut down your child’s sodium intake.
1. Offer more fruits and vegetables.
Your kid should already be eating fruits and vegetables with every meal, but the potassium in them can also help to counterbalance some of the harmful effects of sodium. Fresh is ideal, but frozen, even canned without added salt, is better than none at all, said Jennifer Christman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and clinical nutrition manager at Medifast, Inc.
2. Read labels.
Start scanning food labels and you’ll be surprised by the sodium content of seemingly benign foods like cereals, sauces and dips. Even foods labeled “organic,” “natural,” and “gluten-free” may not be low in sodium. Watch out for foods labeled “low-fat” or “fat-free” since manufactures add sodium so they’ll taste good.
3. Be wary of “low” or “reduced sodium.”
Low-sodium or reduced-sodium foods sound like a good idea, but they have only about 25 percent less sodium than the original, Christman said.
4. Experiment with flavor.
Instead of adding salt or seasoning blends while cooking, wait until later to see if the meal even needs it. Better yet, use a variety of herbs and spices to add a lot of flavor without extra sodium.
“Most kids won’t notice that the salt is missing,” Hes said.
5. Make small changes.
Although kids can get used to the taste of salt, by slowly decreasing the amount in every meal, they’ll eventually appreciate the true taste of their food, Christman said.
6. Ask questions.
It’s a no-brainer: Avoid fast food joints as much as possible. And while dining out, ask your server how a meal is prepared or request that your child’s be made without salt.
7. Be a role model.
When parents eat healthy, kids follow suit. So start making changes to your family’s diet and make sure grandparents and caregivers are on board, too. Sure, change takes time and effort, but your child’s future is worth it.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.