The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than 90 percent of U.S. children, ages 6 to 18, eat a diet containing more than the recommended amount of sodium.
Eating high-sodium foods might not have a negative impact on a child right now, but, much like a car that runs with dirty oil, it eventually takes its toll. A car without proper oil changes may still go 100,000 miles. But it could have gone 200,000 miles if its oil had been changed regularly, and the car had been maintained properly.
By allowing our young children to eat high-sodium foods, we are preparing them for a lifetime of poor eating habits and health issues, including obesity, stroke, high blood pressure and heart issues.
Even modestly elevated blood pressure caused by high sodium places excess strain on the heart and blood vessels over time. Decades of negative impact, started in youth, increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks.
Additionally, many of the foods that contain high amounts of salt are also unhealthy in terms of their calorie density and fat content. For example, French fries and potato chips – high in sodium – are exorbitantly high in calories and fat, which can lead to excess weight and eventually even more health problems.
Ultimately, what we choose to eat is the result of habits we developed when we were younger. The taste of salt is learned. Unless we limit their exposure to heavily salted foods, children will crave them.
Here are some suggestions for how parents can lower the amount of sodium in their children’s diet and help them develop good eating habits and minimize future health risks:
▪ Processed and restaurant foods contain the most salt, so any time you can prepare meals at home is beneficial. Don’t salt food when eating out as it more than likely has plenty of sodium.
▪ Prepare naturally tasty foods without salt. Serving flavorful foods that taste great without salt can help lower sodium intake and broaden your family’s food menu.
▪ Limit salting of food at the table and in food preparation. If the family is accustomed to preparing higher salt content foods, try to slowly decrease to amount of salt over time so the palate adapts to flavors with less salt. You can also use salt alternative flavoring or spices, such as pepper, garlic or lemon juice.
▪ Shop for “no salt added” or “low sodium” food products.
▪ Rinse canned foods such as beans with water before use to reduce the amount of salt.
▪ Eat more vegetables more frequently – unsalted. I suspect many children go a week without ever seeing a freshly prepared vegetable on their plate, which is sad. Following the “Choose My Plate” (www.choosemyplate.gov) approach to healthy eating will help limit sodium intake. It is also a good place to start to develop good eating habits.
Philip L. Newlin is a pediatrician at Via Christi Clinic on Carriage Parkway.