We have all heard that eating too much salt or sodium chloride is bad for our health. Sodium is a nutrient that we all need to maintain our body's fluid balance and to control nerve and muscle function. However, getting too much is linked to increased risks of developing high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke in adults, but what about our kids?

Risks of high sodium in kids

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that one in six children, aged 8-17, have blood pressure levels above normal— which can lead to prehypertension or hypertension as an adult. The risks are highest in non-Hispanic black, Mexican-American children, and higher in boys compared to girls. This link of high sodium intake and hypertension also tends to be higher in overweight and/or obese kids. A recent study showed that eating an extra 1,000 mg of sodium a day, was associated with a 28 percent increase in childhood obesity, primarily due to drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages.

Not all kids are salt-sensitive. Those who are more salt-sensitive experience higher blood pressure readings when eating more sodium, compared to those who do not see this correlation. Salt sensitivity may varying depending on children's age, birth weight, prematurity, and body weight.

Sodium facts in kids

Preference to sodium is shaped by early exposure to eating high sodium foods. Eating foods with less sodium can reduce the taste for it. About 90 percent of US children ages 6-18 years eat too much sodium, according to "Today's Dietitian".  The average intake for kids in this age group are eating 3,255 mg of sodium per day. This equates to eating more 1,000 mg of sodium a day than recommended.  About 43 percent of sodium in kids' diets are from processed foods such as pizza, luncheon meats, cheese, chicken patties, and soups.  Up to 65 percent of sodium comes from store foods, 13 percent from fast foods and 9 percent from school cafeteria foods.

Sodium guidelines

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines sodium recommendations include:

  • Ages 1-3: Less than 1,500 mg/day

  • Ages 4-8: Less than 1,900 mg/day

  • Ages 9-13: Less than 2,200 mg/day

  • Ages 14-18: Less than 2,300 mg/day

What does this look like? Adding just one-fourth teaspoon of salt to foods throughout the day can add 575 mg of sodium. Eating a typical fast food meal of burger and fries can add up to over 1,000 mg of sodium. As you can see, sodium can increase quickly when eating processed foods or by adding salt to foods.

What can parents do?

  • Try eating a DASH diet to lower blood pressure

  • Read food labels and choose foods containing less than 140-200 mg of sodium per serving

  • Choose less processed and packaged foods

  • Replace the salt shaker with other salt-free seasonings

  • Use more "low sodium" or "no salt added" ingredients in your meals and recipes

Sodium is just one factor that may contribute to early cardiovascular disease; but adapting a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts/seeds, eating less processed foods, and maintaining a healthy weight, can reduce this risk and improve our children's overall health.