Smart Ways to Make Sure Your Child Isn't Eating Too Much Salt

Young girls eating pizza at a table
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You may try to make sure your child isn’t eating too much sugar by doing things like limiting how much juice they drink and keeping sugary desserts to a once-in-a-while treat. But are you keeping tabs on how much salt they eat, too?

Nearly 90% of school-age kids today are consuming amounts of sodium that are much higher than recommended levels, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2016.

Using data from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers at the CDC examined the eating habits of more than 2,100 children between ages 6 and 18 and found that the average amount of sodium consumed by kids each day was a shocking 3,256 milligrams, not including salt that was added at the table. (The recommended daily intake of sodium for kids ranges from 1,900 mg/day to 2,300 mg/day, depending on age.)

Why Too Much Salt Is Bad for Kids

While most parents have sugar on their radar because they've heard about the negative health effects of eating too much sugar, such as increased risk of obesity and diabetes, they may not be aware that many kids are also getting unhealthy amounts of salt in their diets.

High sodium intake in kids is associated with higher blood pressure, which can raise the risk for heart disease and stroke later in life. (Shockingly, the CDC report found that about 1 in 9 children already has elevated blood pressure.) High-salt diets have also been linked to childhood obesity, and kids who eat a lot of salt have been reported to be more likely to drink beverages high in sugar and calories, which also increases their risk for obesity.

What Parents Can Do to Limit Kids' Salt Intake

While high-salt foods are everywhere, especially in foods that kids love to eat (like pizza, cold cuts, and fries), the good news is that there is a lot that parents can do to cut down the amount of salt in their kids' diets. And the sooner you do it, the better.

Studies have shown that the craving for salt seen in some babies and toddlers has a lot to do with what foods they are exposed to in their diet. So the less sodium they eat, the less likely they are to want those high-sodium foods.

To reduce the amount of salt in your family’s diet:

  • Read nutrition labels. Even foods like bread or pasta sauce can be loaded with salt, and there can be a huge difference in the amount of sodium in one brand versus another. Always compare, and choose options that contain less salt. And whenever possible, choose fresh or frozen foods over prepared foods, since those tend to contain high amounts of sodium. An added bonus: Shopping for groceries with your school-age kids and teaching them to read labels is one of the best ways to instill healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
  • Ask about salt content. Getting takeout? There’s a reason why so many restaurant meals taste so good: salt. When buying prepared meals, ask for nutrition information and order dishes that are lower in sodium.
  • Watch the sodium in your kids’ favorite foods. The CDC study found that only 10 types of foods made up nearly 50% of kids' sodium intake. These foods included classic kid-favorites like pizza, sandwiches (including burgers), cold cuts, Mexican mixed dishes, soups, savory snacks, cheese, poultry, and plain milk (which naturally contains sodium). Keep these favorite foods to an occasional treat, and make your own lower-sodium versions at home as much as you can.
  • Cook with more seasonings and less salt. When cooking at home, boost the number of seasonings you use, such as garlic and spices, and cut down on the salt. Use fresh ingredients whenever possible and avoid using prepared packages of rice, beans, and other salt-laden foods in your dishes. Make dressings and sauces from scratch using your own seasonings.
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  1. Quader ZS, Gillespie C, Sliwa SA, et al. Sodium intake among us school-aged children: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2011-2012. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017;117(1):39-47.e5. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.010