We all know that too much sodium (the troublesome ingredient in salt) can increase our risk of high blood pressure. Whether or not we listen and change our diets is another story, but we don't really think about salt as being bad for kids, too.
Doctors have known this for a while. And a recent study in the October 2012 issue of Pediatrics showed that kids who had a lot of sodium in their diets were more likely to have high blood pressure, especially if they are overweight.
High blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the body and increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and other health problems. But when high blood pressure starts in childhood, it's especially worrisome. Why? Because the blood vessels are exposed to many more years of stress. This practically guarantees they'll be damaged by adulthood, if not before.
Some sodium is okay. In fact, it's necessary. But there are limits. Many people are unaware of the recommendations for the most sodium intake in a day. Here they are:
- Children 1 to 3 years old: 1,000 milligrams
- Children 4 to 8 years old: 1,200 milligrams
- Children 8 years and older (including adults): 1,500 milligrams
In the study, the average intake of the kids was about 3,400 milligrams. For lots of us grownups, that number is more like 4,000 milligrams!
Most of that sodium, too, doesn't come from the salt shaker — it's in foods. Canned soups, packaged noodle soups and other processed foods can be full of sodium.
What can parents do?
- Break the salt shaker habit. To the extent that you can, take the salt shaker off the table. Use other seasonings to give your food more zing.
- Go through your kitchen cabinets and read the labels (including on beverages like soda). You may be in for some unpleasant surprises when you see just how much sodium is in the foods you and your kids eat and drink!
- Read labels when you go food shopping. If it's got a lot of sodium in it, don't buy it. Learn the hidden sources of sodium in the diet.
- Serve and pack more fresh, unprocessed foods.
It's also important to know whether your child is overweight or not. As the study above showed, it increases a child's risk for high blood pressure.
Parents can check if a child is overweight using the body mass index calculator for children and teens on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
More and more, we are realizing that the habits of childhood can have lifelong effects. It's important to get started on healthy habits early to give your child a lifetime of good health.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.