Ask an expert: Are salty foods hurting your kids?

Q: “Since my doctor told me to limit my sodium, I’ve started reading food labels. Now I’m shocked to see how much salt is in the foods that my kids eat. Should I be watching their sodium, too?”

Answer provided by Kirti Raol, MS, RD, LD, pediatric dietitian with the Gerry Frank Center for Children’s Care

Most parents probably should be putting stricter limits on how much sodium their children consume. According to the American Heart Association, today’s kids take in far more than the recommended limits. While the AHA advocates a limit of 1,500 mg of sodium per day for adults and kids, children between the ages of 6 and 11 average more than twice that. Teenage boys have especially salty diets, taking in an average of more than 4,000 mg of sodium per day.

In my own practice, I’ve seen even higher numbers. When busy families depend entirely on fast convenience foods, children may take in 5,000 to 10,000 mg of sodium per day. It’s not hard to do on a diet that focuses mainly on pizza, chicken nuggets, corndogs and chips. Kids love the way these foods taste, but all that salt could take a potentially deadly toll on their health in the form of high blood pressure and other serious problems.

Not long ago, it was rare to hear about a child who had high blood pressure. Today, 4 to 5 percent of all children have it to some degree. High blood pressure is a leading contributor to heart attacks and strokes, and the warning signs of heart disease can already be found in children with high blood pressure. Once saddled with hypertension in childhood, these kids are much more likely to have it as adults, too. Reducing sodium intake in children, says the AHA, not only benefits them as kids, but also helps prevent a future plagued by heart disease, enabling them to live longer, healthier lives.

That’s some pretty strong motivation. So are you ready to start helping your kids shake the salt out of their diets? Begin with a game of hide and seek.

Find out where the sodium hides

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates that more than 75 percent of the sodium we consume comes from restaurant foods and processed foods. According to a 2012 CDC study, some of the saltiest restaurant foods include pizza, chicken (often breaded and fried) and fast-food sandwiches. Among processed foods, some of the worst culprits are breads and rolls, deli meats (ham, turkey) and cured meats (hot dogs, salami, bacon, jerky), soups, processed cheeses, meat and pasta mixes (ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, stovetop hamburger mixes), and savory snacks (chips, crackers).

A child who has a bacon strip in the morning, a hotdog in the afternoon and a slice of pizza in the evening can easily hit 2,000 mg of sodium, and that’s before adding a piece of toast, some mustard, a bag of chips and a salad with croutons and bottled dressing (another place where sodium hides). It adds up fast.

You’re on the right track by starting to read labels – opt for foods that are low in salt, providing less than 140 mg of sodium per serving. Be sure to check the sodium content in chain restaurant meals, too. Better yet, skip the drive-through and cook more fresh, wholesome foods at home.

Seek out healthier alternatives

Providing more fresh, home-cooked meals for your children is one of the best ways to reduce the sodium in their diets. Simply avoiding fast food is a huge step, but there’s a lot more you can do.

Put away the salt shaker, and try to rely less on salt in your cooking. Cut back to about half your usual amount, and seek more interesting substitutes such as fresh herbs, salt-free spice blends, or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime for flavor.

Consider your cooking methods – they can influence salt content, as well. Choose baking, broiling, steaming and grilling over breading and deep-frying. When grilling, don’t over-do it with salty marinades and brines.

Rediscover fresh fruits and vegetables – they’re bursting with flavor, and they’re naturally salt free. Serve a variety of fresh produce as a major focus of your kids’ meals and snacks.

Does your family eat a lot of canned soups? Look for the low-salt versions, or make your own once a month and freeze it in two-bowl portions.

Since you can’t control the amount of sodium in school lunches, pack your own. Make sure your children’s lunches always include milk, fresh fruit and a vegetable to balance out any saltier foods they eat. When providing foods that do contain some sodium, keep the portions small – if you’re making a sandwich with deli meat, for example, choose low-salt meats and use just one slice instead of three.

Stock up on healthy snack foods that are tasty and low in salt. Here are 10 that make the list of favorites among dietitians:

  • Fresh fruit and dried fruit
  • Half a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread
  • Unsalted whole-grain crackers or whole-wheat tortillas with hummus or unsalted nut butter
  • A handful of unsalted or lightly salted dry-roasted nuts
  • Unsweetened applesauce with a few dry-roasted nuts
  • A small apple with 2 teaspoons of peanut butter or 1 ounce of low-fat cheese
  • Ants on a log: celery with nut butter, topped with raisins or other dried fruit
  • A parfait of low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit and unsalted granola
  • High-fiber dry cereal with a few nuts or seeds and some dried fruit mixed in
  • Baked, unsalted tortilla chips and fresh salsa

Finally, watch what your kids drink. Water is a naturally salt-free, sugar-free, calorie-free beverage that helps temper the effects of salt in the body – and most kids don’t drink nearly enough of it. Encourage your kids to drink water instead of soda and fruit juice.

Tag – you’re it

It’s up to us parents to act as role models for our kids. We can’t chow down on chips and then toss the kids an apple and expect them to bite. If we want them to adopt healthy behaviors, it’s up to us to show them how it’s done. When we swear off the salt shaker, they soon stop reaching for it, too.

Just as kids can develop a taste for salt, so can they develop a new preference for fresher, more natural flavors. Children who get used to eating healthy foods at home quickly learn to tell the difference between fresh food and overly salted processed foods. In my own family, on those rare occasions when there is no other choice but a chain restaurant, my kids invariably tell me that the food tastes too salty to them. Kids can learn to tell the difference, and they’ll make good choices as long as you give them good options to choose from. When you make this a family effort, you’ll all come out winners.