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It's not just a grownup problem: salt is bad for kids, too

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 17, 2012 08:10 AM

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I love salt. I mean, I really love it. I love it on everything, I eat it off pretzels. This is not good for me; the sodium in salt can cause high blood pressure. So far I'm healthy with normal blood pressure, but I know that I need to do something about my unhealthy habit.

And even worse, I seem to have passed my love of salt to some of my children. If allowed, my youngest puts so much salt on his broccoli that it looks like snow. When he was younger, he'd sneak licks of the top of the salt shaker (we'd clean it all the time, just in case). My husband and I have certainly discouraged this behavior, but we haven't worried too much. After all, they are just kids, and healthy. But recently I've started realizing that I need to worry more--and do more than discourage. A study released today in the journal Pediatrics makes this particularly clear.

Researchers looked at the health and diets of more than 6000 kids. They found that the ones with higher sodium intake were more likely to have high blood pressure. This was particularly true for overweight children; for them, every increase of 1000 mg of sodium a day upped their risk of high blood pressure by 74%. For normal weight kids, the risk was much lower.

Here's why this matters. Having high blood pressure puts stress on blood vessels and causes damage. This damage adds up over time--so high blood pressure that starts in childhood is particularly worrisome. It's giving the damage a head start--and markedly increases the risk of having complications from high blood pressure, like heart disease or kidney disease or strokes.

Now, it's not certain that if your kid eats lots of salty foods (or salts their food as much as Liam loves to) he will end up with high blood pressure. But why take the chance? Is it really worth it?

Sodium isn't all bad--it's actually something our body needs.Do you know how much sodium children are supposed to have? For kids one to three, the recommendation is 1000 mg, for age four to eight it's 1200 mg, and older than that it's the same as adults, 1500 mg. Do you know how much the average intake was in the study? 3400 mg. And for lots of us, it's much more than that.

Here are three things you can do:
  • Get out of the habit of salting things. If you can, get the salt shaker off the table. Try using herbs or lemon to flavor foods. 
  • Start reading nutrition labels. Find out just how much sodium is in your food.
  • Watch out for processed foods, like canned soups and frozen dinners--they are often really high in sodium. 
This is going to be hard for Liam and me. Liam's not overweight, but I don't know that this will always be true--and I want him to grow up healthy. As for me, I want to stay healthy--I want to not just be alive to see my grandchildren, but be able to play outside with them. So we'll give it a try...getting the salt shaker out of our reach will be a good start.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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