WASHINGTON – Cutting the salt is not just for grandma and grandpa anymore.
Most kids are consuming far more salt than they should and that extra sodium could be posing a health risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that children and teens, on average, are consuming as much salt as adults – about 1,000 milligrams too much. The CDC warns that this is leading to more blood pressure problems, especially among kids who are overweight or obese.
Locally, Children’s National Medical Center has seen an increase in the number of young patients coming in with hypertension or pre-hypertension.
Megan Barna, a pediatric outpatient dietitian at Children’s, says salt could be a contributing factor, and parents need to take action to reduce the amount of sodium their kids eat.
“We really want to start to adjust their habits right now,” she says.
It’s not just the chips and french fries that are sending sodium levels soaring. Barna says the biggest culprit is the hidden salt in processed and restaurant food, which is responsible for roughly 75 percent of sodium intake. That includes items from pizza to cold cereal, and jarred spaghetti sauce to pancake mix.
“Whenever we are eating those foods, they are not always going to taste salty,” Barna says. “It is not always going to be obvious to you that they are very high in sodium. So you are really going to want to try to take a look at that label.”
She says go with brands with the lowest sodium content, keeping in mind that the recommended daily total should not except 2,300 milligrams.
Her suggested approach is to do it gradually, step-by-step.
“If we decrease our salt day-to-day, after a couple of months, it is likely that we are going to become accustomed to that,” Barna says.
And it is best to do it as a family.
Studies have shown that children rate their parents as their number one role model, and are much likely to adopt healthy eating habits if they see their parents reach for veggies instead of chips, and water instead of soda.
“It really needs to be something everybody is in on together as a team,” Barna says.
That includes public schools, which are under a federal mandate to cut sodium levels in all meals they serve. Some food manufacturers are also cutting salt content voluntarily.
Barna says parents can try swapping herbs and spices for salt, starting with popcorn, which can also be flavored with cinnamon, parmesean cheese or even garlic powder.
And she says parents should not think unlimited salty foods are ok if their child is a healthy weight, or plays a lot of sports. She says all kids can end up at risk for cardiovascular problems as adults if they consume too much sodium.
Young athletes who work up a super sweat can either have a small salty snack just before exercise, or a sports drink with electrolytes when they are done.
For tips on reducing sodium in the diets of children, follow this link.