We know that too much sugar is bad for kids, and we’ve heard about why we should steer clear of preservatives, artificial coloring, and junk foods. But what’s the deal with sodium? On the one hand, studies find that Americans eat almost twice as much as the recommended daily amount of sodium, and some companies are now voluntarily cutting back on the amount of sodium in foods as a way to improve health. But on the other hand, you don’t hear too much about high blood pressure being a problem for kids. Should we be trying to reduce sodium intake in otherwise healthy kids?
To answer this question, we turned to Seattle pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson, also known as SeattleMamaDoc. She tells us, “Salt intake is likely not bad for children in the present moment; i.e. they won’t suffer from the ill effects on the cardiovascular system or renal system acutely as a child while eating salt. However, if children get used to lots of salt in [their] diet (mostly from processed foods) they may learn bad habits that last a lifetime.” She adds, “With the recent data regarding salt intake in adults, those habits or patterns make me worried. If they are accustomed and used to/craving salt we know longstanding it can be harmful.”
One of the biggest problems with our diets today is that the amount of salt we eat has been creeping up steadily without us even realizing it. Salt is in just about everything because things that have salt taste better and last longer. And if you’re really watching salt, you start to realize that it’s almost unavoidable: It’s in cereal, bread, cheese, soups, sauces, desserts, snacks; and of course canned, prepared, and processed foods.
Using the handy-dandy tools over at NutritionData, we calculated that if you cooked up a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and a cup of canned chicken soup to serve to your little one, you’d be giving him about 2,200 mg of sodium. At that point you would have exceeded the recommended daily allowance (between 1200 and 1900 mg/day) for kids ages 4 to 8 – and that’s just lunch.
What can you do to try to help your kids lead a lower-sodium lifestyle? First, lead by example. Take the salt shaker off the table and stop adding salt to foods, because there’s probably already plenty of salt in your life. For example, you don’t really need to add salt to the water when you boil pasta. Some purists will argue that it tastes better, but really, you’ll be just fine without it. (You can put a lemon wedge in the water if you want a little extra kick.)
Next, find ways to make “your own” versions of foods instead of buying the frozen, fast-food, prepared, or restaurant versions. Do you really need to give your kids pizza from the frozen food section? Of course not. Get some pizza dough (extra bonus if it’s whole wheat) and let them have a great time making their own. And for heaven’s sake, don’t give them canned soup when it’s so easy to make your own soup. All you really need to do is toss some chicken and vegetables in some water and boil it for a few hours. When it’s done, taste it and add a little salt only if you think it needs it. Chances are, when you have the full and pure flavor of all of those goodies you’ve been cooking up, you won’t want to add much salt at all.
And third, focus on flavors. Add some pep to your food with fresh herbs, garlic, and lemon juice instead of salt. Have your kids help you chop up some potatoes and roast them with olive oil, fresh herbs, and lemon juice for a low-salt and lower-fat alternative to French fries. For another cool side dish, try this recipe for lemon rice with golden raisins and almonds from the Mayo Clinic (no, really!).
One added benefit of watching your kids’ salt intake is that most of the foods you will steer clear of will be foods that you’d avoid for other reasons as well (processed or junk foods). So when you start watching your kids’ sodium intake, they’ll wind up with a healthier diet to show for it. And that’s something that will benefit them not just now but far into the future.