Salt: How Much Do Kids Need?
Salt is an essential mineral for good health, but most kids today eat far more than they should. Eating too much salt is unhealthy and can lead to many different health problems. Most of this comes in the form of processed or restaurant foods, which makes it difficult for people to make good judgments about what foods to avoid. It makes it challenging to determine just how much sodium is being consumed per day.
Salt is a preservative and is therefore ubiquitous in processed foods. Even “sweet” foods generally contain at least a bit of sodium and foods that are really salty contain lots. A child’s lunch sandwich will contain lots of sodium: in the bread, the mayonnaise, and the cheese (or meat). There is even sodium in some soft drinks, especially those designed for sports. They are meant to replace electrolytes, one of which is salt. But most kids today consume way too much salt and do not need additional salt in their drinks, too!
It is rare to find children (or anyone) suffering from a salt deficiency due to a lack of salt in the diet. Sometimes adults who are suffering from severe water retention or athletes who are doing intense workouts over long periods of time can end up with a sodium deficiency in their blood. But this is not due to not consuming enough salt (the notable exception being in users of the drug Ecstacy, but if this is an issue for your child then you have bigger problems than just trying to get them to eat a healthy diet!). Indeed, even people in those situations might be consuming too much salt on a regular basis. However, due to other diseases or intense physical exercise for a long period of time, their salt reserves drop down.
Fear of developing hyponatremia (salt deficiency) is not a good reason to load your kids up with salt. With the amount of dietary sodium readily available in processed foods your child will have a hard time not eating too much salt, but will not have any trouble getting enough to live a healthy life. In fact, even adults need only 500-2,400 mg or 0.5-2.4 grams daily to be healthy (please note the wide variance of 480%!). That 2,400 mg or 2.4 g daily dose is the very upper limit of the safe and healthy recommendations out there today. In fact, most organizations recommend that adults keep their sodium intake below 1,500 mg (1.5 g).
Here is a fact many people do not know: The amount of recommended salt intake and the amount of recommended sodium intake are two different things. Table salt is only about 40% sodium. Therefore, you have to be aware of what you are trying to avoid and how much. For instance, a maximum recommendation of 6 grams of salt is 2.4 grams of sodium.
Here are the recommendations for the maximum amount of salt kids should have in their diets, according to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, Salt and Health:
|Age||Maximum Salt Intake|
|0-6 months||<1g / day|
|6-12 months||1g / day|
|1-3 years||2g / day|
|4-6 years||3g / day|
|7-10 years||5g / day|
|11 years and above||6g / day|
However, these recommendations are for amount of salt. This is measurable when you are doing absolutely all food preparation at home, using table salt. However, most of us do buy processed foods and the nutrition labels list only the amount of sodium, not the amount of salt. To calculate whether our kids are eating too much salt, we need to know the maximum amount of sodium foods contain. When changed to reflect sodium intake rather than salt, the maximum recommended amount of sodium looks like this:
|Age||Maximum Sodium Intake|
|0-6 months||<0.4g / day|
|6-12 months||0.4g / day|
|1-3 years||0.8g / day|
|4-6 years||1.2g / day|
|7-10 years||2g / day|
|11 years and above||2.4g / day|
See the difference?
These maximums are actually on the high end of the spectrum, as many organizations, such as the American Heart Association, recommend that adult intakes stay below 1.5g sodium daily, and, as I mentioned above, the minimum recommended intake is actually 0.5 g sodium daily.
That’s part of what makes it so hard to determine how much salt your kids should have – the recommendations are maximum upper limits, not ideal amounts. You don’t want to actually aim for these amounts – you want to be well below them! Yet the percent daily values listed on nutrition panels are based on the maximums, so it looks as if there is not as much sodium in the food as there really is.
Take a look at the nutrition panel above, which is for sea salt flavor kettle chips. There are 120 mg of salt in one serving, which is 25 grams. Most of us will not eat only 25 grams of chips, but suppose you did. The 120 mg of sodium is listed here as 5% of the daily recommended value, which conveys the sense that it is fine to eat 2,400 mg of sodium daily, far above the upper limit of 1,500 recommended by many organizations – and that is for adults! If a child ate even a small amount of chips, they would be getting a significant percentage of the healthy daily amount.
Babies do not need any added salt in their diet. Babies’ kidneys are not yet fully developed and they are too immature to cope with added salt in their diets. During the important first formative months, it is especially crucial that babies be allowed to grow naturally. Babies on a breastmilk or formula diet do get just a very tiny amount of sodium in their diet. Their diet is specially formulated to provide exactly what they need and nothing more. Too much sodium can be especially harmful for very young babies.
Infants who are being introduced to solids and/or weaned off breast milk and formula should not be given any additional salt in their diet. Infant foods are specially formulated not to contain added sodium. It is just not necessary or healthy for babies. You may taste some baby food and think it tastes bland, but it does not taste bland to babies, whose taste buds have not yet become accustomed to strong flavors. Just imagine – if you drank nothing but milk, eating plain steamed peas and carrots would taste amazing, interesting, and new. Babies do not need any added salt, so do not add any to their food. As babies grow up, you may choose to give them some snacks (for instance, I gave my babies a few Bamba occasionally, which is quite salty). If you give them snacks every once in a while, they will definitely get plenty of sodium in their diet. Just be careful not to give them too many processed foods, and avoid using things like commercial sauces and spreads, as they often have a lot of added salt.
Childhood is the best time to inspire healthy kids. Do this by continuing to avoid adding any salt to meals. A tiny pinch of salt in a dish can help bring out the inherent flavors in vegetables, but if you can taste the salt in a dish you cook, it is too much salt. Really, the rule of thumb is that the less salt you add to home cooking, the better – ideally adding no salt at all. Kids who do not eat salt in food at home are more likely to be getting the right amount of sodium. There is a lot of sodium in processed foods, so kids get plenty of sodium from the processed or restaurant foods purchased.
Kids who do not develop a taste for salty food when they are young are more likely to eat a healthy amount of salt as adults. A good example would be my husband and I. His mother never added salt to everything, whereas my mother added lots of salt to her food. As a child I developed a taste for salt that has never left me. After getting married, I began cooking food without adding any salt and slowly I am getting used to it, although I still sometimes find it bland. My husband, on the other hand, has the ability to detect salt even in foods to which I have not added it!
In my house, we rarely consume any processed foods. I make almost every meal from scratch. We eat a lot of salads and most meals are paired with brown rice rather than bread. Even our ice cream and yogurt are homemade! We only eat in restaurants a few times a year. Our kids get most of the sodium in their diets from crackers, which they get to eat a couple times a week, and from Vegemite, which they also get only rarely.
Teens, especially females, have to be very wary of salt intake. The foods that are marketed to and are popular among teenagers tend to be things like burgers, chicken nuggets, pizzas, chips, cakes, and cookies. All of these processed foods are high in sodium and teens can easily eat way too much salt. Girls reach their peak bone mass at puberty and consuming too much salt during this critical time of formation and development can result in girls’ bones not attaining a sufficient thickness. This can cause osteoporosis later in life.
The amount of salt kids need is very different from the amount recommended as a percentage daily value. Percentage daily values are based on a very high adult amount, which is double the safe maximum for children. The guidelines, even those listed above for children, are based on maximum safe amounts, which are four to five times higher than the amount that is actually healthy. Experts all agree that too much salt is harmful and dangerous to health – they all consistently recommend reducing salt intake as much as possible to obtain optimum health. The best thing you can do for your kids is to reduce their salt intake as much as possible!