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Take a stand against salty snacks: Too much sodium puts kids at risk

 
 
  • A whopping 97 percent of American kids eat too much salt, leading the American Heart Association to predict that today's generation of children may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

    A whopping 97 percent of American kids eat too much salt, leading the American Heart Association to predict that today's generation of children may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Published: 8/16/2010 12:06 AM

She was in a real pickle. The 8-year-old girl craved the crunchy green pickled cucumbers, and while dad was more than happy to indulge hers, mom worried about too much salt intake. When asked to be the tiebreaker, I had to side with mom since one large pickle a day provides quite a sodium load for one little body.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies provides dietary references for a variety of ingested substances, including sodium. "Adequate intakes" of sodium are based on age, and these sodium intake levels peak in adolescence and drop after age 50.

The established adequate intake of sodium is 120 mg per day for infants through 6 months of age, 370 mg for infants 7 to 12 months, 1,000 mg for children 1 to 3 years, 1,200 mg for children 4 to 8 years, and 1,500 mg per day for older children and adults through 50 years. After 50, the sodium intake goal is 1,300 mg, with a drop-off to 1,200 mg after age 70.

Institute of Medicine researchers note that these sodium intake levels are tailored to meet the needs of healthy children and adults who engage in the recommended amount of daily exercise. Healthy adults with higher activity levels, or those who reside in humid climates, require a greater sodium intake due to sweat loss. People with medical conditions such as high blood pressure should follow diets that are further sodium restricted, as instructed by their physician.

The American Heart Association agrees that the general population should limit dietary sodium to 1,500 mg per day, down substantially from its previous cutoff of 2,300 mg per day. AHA experts explain that excessive sodium consumption is "strongly linked" to the development of hypertension, a medical condition diagnosed in one in 10 Americans sometime during their lifetime.

According to AHA data, a whopping 97 percent of American kids consume excessive amounts of salt, leading the association to make the dire prediction that "today's generation of children may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents" due to early-onset hypertension, diabetes and other risk factors.

At the same time, heart advocates note that a drop in sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day would lead to a 25 percent decrease in high blood pressure cases, and subsequently billions of dollars in health care savings.

Citing studies that also link high salt intake to strokes, heart attacks, kidney disease and other serious illnesses, the Institute of Medicine urges all Americans to gradually "reset" their taste buds to accept and enjoy meals with a less salty flavor, and therefore a lower sodium load.

As points of dietary reference, one-half teaspoon of salt has 1,200 mg of sodium, and the little girl's tempting 1-ounce dill pickle contains 360 mg of the salty element. Seven slices of cucumber feature a very low 2 mg of sodium.

Parents attempting to shake up their kids' - and their own - salty dietary habits can follow salt reduction tips from the American Dietetic Association. These include tasting food before salting; cooking with herbs, spices and fruit juice instead of salt; eating fresh produce and meats that are low in salt; and zeroing in on foods labeled as low sodium, very low sodium and sodium-free.

• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.