Think twice—and check nutritional labels—before you serve your child's next meal. That's a key takeaway from a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that children in the US are eating, on average, 3,387 mg of salt per day. That's about the same amount as adults—and it's a lot more than the teaspoon (2,300 mg) daily limit for salt currently recommended for kids.
Published in the journal Pediatrics, the CDC study looked at data from 6,200 kids aged 8 to 18 involved in a series of national health surveys. The children were asked twice over several days to detail all foods they'd eaten; researchers then calculated sodium intake based on their answers. The result? Kids averaged 3387 milligrams daily!
Just like grownups with high sodium diets, excess salt intake for kids is linked with higher blood pressure, especially for children who are overweight and obese.
According to researchers, those who ate the most salt faced double the risk of having elevated blood pressure, compared with those who ate few salty foods. But among overweight or obese kids, the risk was more than triple. Overall, 15 percent had either high blood pressure or slightly elevated blood pressure called pre-hypertension, reports NPR.
What's more, even babies are getting too much salt. A 2011 study from British researchers found that as many as 70 percent of 8-month-old babies in the UK consume more sodium than recommended. In America, where the recommended daily intake of sodium for 6-to-12-month olds is 370 mg, national data from the 1990s showed that US infants take in 645 mg of salt on average.
So where is all this sodium coming from? No surprise, the culprit appears to be processed foods—the fast foods, snack packs, and ready-to-eat meals that are just so incredibly convenient for today's busy families. As NPR discovered through their own nutritional analysis, popular fast food chicken nuggets have about 540 mg of salt per six-piece serving, a 1/4 cup serving of boxed macaroni and cheese has 560 mg per serving, and a medium order of fast food French fries has 570 mg. Among baby and toddler foods, some jarred foods (including toddler-friendly lasagna and frankfurters) contained over 500 mg of sodium—or more than a day's worth of sodium in a single serving.
A little stunned after checking the nutritional information labels of your kid's favorite foods? You're not alone.
"This study makes me feel more determined than ever to clean up my family's diet—we all eat the same stuff, so every one of us needs to change," says Jennifer Wilson, 38, a mom of three from Albany, New York.
Wilson's resolve comes partly from her husband's recent diagnosis of pre-hypertension, which his doctor squarely placed on their regular diet of drive-through dinners and "boxed everything," as Wilson describes. Since then, she has been replacing processed foods in their diet with whole foods and home-cooked meals.
And what's happened to the salt content of some of their favorite dishes? "I've cut the amount of sodium in mac-and-cheese by more than half just by making it myself with whole wheat noodles, shredded cheese, no-salt herb seasoning, and steamed broccoli," says Wilson.
"Does it take longer to make? Yes, but I've timed it and I would say cooking this way adds maybe 10 minutes to making a quick mac-and-cheese dinner. For my husband's health, my kids' health—and my health? 10 minutes is definitely worth it!"