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Should You Be Worried About Your Child's Salt Intake?

©iStockphoto.com/MichaelMattner

©iStockphoto.com/MichaelMattner

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by Wyatt Myers
June 03, 2010

The fact that Americans are eating too much salt is hardly breaking news. Though the average adult should be consuming between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, daily sodium intake for most Americans is well over 3,000 mg.  What is new news is that several well-known health organizations, including the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the World Health Organization, among others, have recently called on either the government or the food companies themselves to begin lowering levels of salt in processed and restaurant foods.

And with the recent hubbub in the news over salt, it got us thinking: Should we be worried about our babies’ intake of salt?

How salt affects babies
The health problems related to high sodium intake in adults are well-known. Over time, too much salt can lead to an increased risk of stroke and other forms of heart disease, as well as kidney failure.  Best solution? Reduce the amount of sodium in our diets. Sounds easy enough but old habits die hard and America’s love affair with salt usually starts at an early age, even in infancy.

Rallie McAllister, M.D., M.P.H., founder and medical director of The Mommy MD Guides and a family physician in Lexington, Kentucky, reminds us that the first commercial baby foods were loaded with extra salt. “This had nothing to do with the babies’ preferences or nutritional needs,” says Dr. McAllister. “The salt was added to pass the mothers’ taste test!”  Though most manufacturers have stopped the practice, babies are still facing an overexposure to sodium.

And infants are not immune to the power of salt. According to McAllister, salt can affect a baby in subtle, yet dangerous ways. “When we introduce babies to the taste of salty foods, we essentially change their taste preferences. They may be less willing to eat foods without added salt,” she says. “Once babies have developed a love affair with salt, they may find the taste of wholesome, low-salt foods—including fruits and vegetables—far less appealing than salty, highly processed foods.”

This change can start a cycle of food preferences that ultimately leads to greater problems down the road. “In most cases, these diseases don’t fully manifest until adulthood, but there’s no doubt that the damage starts early in life,” says McAllister.

A recent 2013 report presented by the American Heart Association (AHA) analyzed dozens of baby and toddler foods for excessive salt levels. In the first study of its kind, researchers used a database to pinpoint pre-packaged commercial meals and snacks that rank high in sodium content (more than 210 mg per customary serving). Almost 75 percent of the foods exceeded the recommended level. Some meals contained as much as a whopping 630 mg per customary serving! Foods with the most sodium were savory snacks and toddler meals. Researchers recommend parents and caregivers closely read nutrition labels for sodium content.

Tips to cutting back on sodium
Luckily, it’s easy to keep your baby’s sodium intake low as you begin introducing new foods. Here is what Dr. McAllister recommends as baby transitions to solids:

  • Don’t add extra salt to your baby’s food. Our babies don’t emerge from the womb craving salty foods,” says McAllister. “Rather, we train them to love salt as much as we do.”
  • Avoid highly processed foods. “Canned foods, such as soups, veggies and pastas, and most packaged foods, like bread, crackers, and frozen entrees, typically contain loads of salt—too much for babies’ delicate systems,” says McAllister. Instead, opt for whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains without the added salt.
  • Watch what you offer as liquids. Even some seemingly good-for-you juices are loaded up with added sodium.
  • Be wary of condiments like ketchup and salad dressings.

With additional reporting by Lisa Guthrie. Last reviewed on April 8, 2013

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