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Parents could vastly improve the diets of their children with one small change

A plate of crisps is seen on a chair in a central street during a festival in Spain.
Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo
Everything in moderation.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Parents are constantly being advised to reduce the amount of added sugar and fat in children’s diets and countries like England recently released new snack guidelines that focus on calorie content to help combat growing obesity in children. However, in a bid to avoid sugary snacks and lower the overall calories, parents often reach for savory ones instead—a switch that can similarly damage children’s health.

As the mother of a six- and four-year-old, I know this only too well. You say no to the sugary cookies and allow the bag of popcorn instead. But children’s diets can contain as much as 75% more salt than they need, often hidden in foods you’d least suspect. And that the consequences of a high-sodium diet (pdf) in children include high blood pressure (hypertension), which is almost always asymptomatic but can lead to organ damage and other health problems, like coronary artery disease or stroke, respiratory illnesses such as asthma, obesity, and even osteoporosis, in adulthood.

By following a simple rule of thumb when it comes to snacks and healthy favorites alike, parents can future-proof their children’s health.

According to the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), an estimated 3.5% of all children and teens in the United States have high blood pressure, however, the condition often goes undetected and untreated. The AAP and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute both recommend that children have yearly screenings for high blood pressure starting at age three, at their annual well-child visits.

Salt, much like sugar, is hiding in the everyday “healthy” foods we offer our children.

While I was aware of the high salt content in snack foods like potato chips, until I worked on a book called The Wholesome Child, authored by Sydney-based pediatric nutritionist Mandy Sacher, I didn’t realize that salt, much like sugar, is hiding in the everyday “healthy” foods we offer our children.

Table salt is made up of sodium and chloride, two chemicals that are essential for our children’s health, but only in very small amounts. One teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium. Sodium is also found naturally in a variety of foods, including milk and cream (approximately 50 mg per 100 g) and eggs (approximately 80 mg per 100 g), so it’s fairly easy for children to get the sodium they need without having to eat added salt.

Furthermore, there is evidence that dietary habits in childhood and adolescence also influence eating patterns in later life. “Tiny taste buds are very impressionable,” writes Sacher in her book, now a bestseller in Australia (a US edition will be published by Skyhorse in May this year). “A salty childhood sets up cravings for salty food— a difficult habit to break and a potential route to illnesses.”

But it’s not as simple as cutting out potato chips, pretzels, processed foods such as deli meats, sausages, ready-prepared meals, and take-out foods like pizzas and burgers. Few of us realize that breads, breakfast cereals, pre-prepared vegetable soups, pasta sauces, and canned foods like beans, chickpeas, or tuna are culprits too. Even cheese can contain a whopping amount of sodium. “Don’t be fooled—one cheese sandwich can contain 1,000mg of sodium or more. That’s already the entire daily allowance for a three-year-old in a single sandwich. Add a slice of ham to that sandwich and you’re way over the limit,” Sacher says.

For ages one to three, the recommended amount of sodium is just 1,000-1,500 mg per day; ages four to eight, no more than 1,900 mg sodium per day, and even at ages nine to thirteen, the recommendation is slightly less than one teaspoon of salt—2,200mg sodium per day. (According to the World Health Organization, no one should eat more than one teaspoon of salt per day).

Recognizing that more than 75% of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods, in 2016 the FDA released voluntary sodium targets for food companies and restaurants that set limits on how much sodium should be in certain foods. Still, learning to read nutrition labels is key to keeping tabs on sodium content.

“The sodium content of packaged foods is part of the Nutrition Facts panel,” writes Sacher. “The label gives the sodium in milligrams in one serving of the food. It also gives the Percent Daily Value (%DV), which is the percent of sodium in one serving compared to the daily recommended amount for a 2,000 calorie diet. If a food has 140mg sodium or less per serving, or 5% DV or less, it is low in sodium; if it has 20% DV or more, it is high in sodium.”

Making a few easy tweaks to your child’s diet could save them a future filled with health issues.

To quickly identify foods that contain less sodium, check if there is a nutrient claim on the front of the product package. If it says the product is reduced in sodium, that means it has at least 25% less sodium than the regular product. If it says the product is low sodium, that means it has 140mg or less sodium per serving; if it says it is very low sodium, it has 35mg or less sodium per serving.

“As an overall guide, 140mg or less per serving is low (the healthiest choice). Over 140mg to 460mg is moderate, while 460 mg or more per serving is high (limit or avoid these foods),” writes Sacher.

Along with reading nutrition labels, Sacher’s top tips for reducing salt in your child’s diet include:

  • Reduce salt slowly in your cooking so your family’s taste buds can adapt.
  • Leave salt shakers and condiments off the table.
  • Choose low sodium soy sauce, stocks, and soups.
  • Buy canned fish like tuna in spring water rather than brine.
  • Rinse canned chickpeas and vegetables, and even olives well before serving.
  • Choose low sodium snacks like low sodium crackers with almond butter, no salt added-peanut butter on apple slices, hummus with pita bread, or fresh fruits and vegetables.

Taking the time to check the Nutrition Facts Panel and make a few easy tweaks to your child’s diet could save them from developing a craving for salt – and a future filled with health issues.

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