by Michael Bryant, Exercise Physiologist
What are your child’s favorite lunch items? If the list includes processed or pre-packaged foods, you might want to take another look at their menus. A “Lunchable” by Oscar Meyer can have up to 1,440 mg of sodium per serving. Pizza, jarred spaghetti sauce, macaroni and cheese, cold-cuts and hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and many other kid-friendly foods are typically very high in their sodium amounts per serving. Pint-sized bodies are ingesting super-sized amounts of sodium, and the effects are showing up in their physicals.
The adult Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for sodium is 2,000-2,400 mg of sodium a day. The average child consumes between 2,325 to 3,387 mg a day. To be fair, the typical adult consumption is around 2,400 mg a day. Right now, there is no Recommended Daily Allowance set by the FDA for sodium for children. However, when reduced for body size and weight, the adjusted guidelines for children would be as follows:
- 1,000-1,500 mg for children aged 2-3
- 1,200-1,900 mg for children aged 4-8
- 1,500-2,200 mg for children aged 9-13
- 1,500-2,300 mg for children aged 14-18
The prevalence of sodium in our diets is having a surprising effect in children. Along with lowered activity levels and increasing waistlines, the high level of sodium intake in children is thought to lead to the current rise in children with hypertension or pre-hypertension. No one wants to think of children struggling to control their blood pressure. Some studies suggest that for overweight children, every 1,000 mg of sodium in their diets raised their risk of pre-hypertension by as much as 74%, and by as much as 6% for normal weight children. About 14% of US adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 are already battling their blood pressure, or should be, with even higher rates of 20-25% for overweight children. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children be screened for blood pressure beginning at age 3. Controlling your child’s diet and maintaining healthy lifestyle choices that include exercise or physical activity, plenty of sleep and plenty of water to drink during the day can all have a positive effect. As in adults, if caught early, blood pressure problems in children ARE reversible. If left untreated or diagnosed, they can lead to the same outcomes as for adults as well.
“Just like adults, children can acquire a salt tolerance and may need to “relearn” what food should taste like without all the added salt.”
One teaspoon of table salt has about 1,200 mg of sodium, so it doesn’t take much to add up. Sodium is sneaky though. It’s not just in table salt. Many preservatives and processing ingredients for packaged foods pack in the sodium, so it’s important to read labels or look for a “low sodium” option. A good target is to aim for around 140 mg of sodium per serving in the foods you prepare for your children. Teach them not to salt their food, if it has been cooked with salt. Just like adults, children can acquire a salt tolerance and may need to “relearn” what food should taste like without all the added salt.
Above all, aim for a balanced diet and lifestyle for your child. Healthy proteins (lean meats, fish, even eggs), fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy grains and plenty of water are all important. Following the daily recommendation of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is a great way to start. Avoiding sports drinks and some soda drinks, and replacing them with water or low-sodium alternatives is another easy way to eliminate sodium. For example, a “regular” sports drink has around 270 mg of sodium per serving, whereas the lower sodium/calorie versions have around 170 mg per serving. Water, of course, has none. Some dairy, like cheese, can be high sodium, so be careful with it, but milk and most yogurts are lower sodium foods. Children should drink around 64 oz. of water a day, and be physically active for at least an hour a day. That doesn’t have to involve “working out” or participating in organized sports; literally, playtime is perfect. Time flies when you’re having fun, so help your child find something they enjoy doing. If you encourage healthy exercise, mindful eating and set a good example with your own habits, your child will benefit for the rest of their lives.
Michael Bryant is from Baltimore, MD. After going back to school and graduating with a degree in Exercise Science from UNC-Charlotte, he is an Exercise Physiologist at Ft. Sanders Health & Fitness. He also works with the Weight Management program and is available as a personal trainer.