Most kids get too much salt, but you can help set them on a healthier path from the start. Here’s information on how too much sodium can hurt their heart health and what you can do.
How much sodium should my kids get?
The American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg of sodium a day for all Americans for ideal heart health.
How much sodium are children and youth in the U.S. eating?
On average, kids ages 2-19 eat more than 3,100 mg sodium per day, about double the amount the American Heart Association recommends. The older children get, the more calories and sodium they tend to eat.
In the 2-19 year-old age group for boys and girls, boys ages 12-19 eat the most sodium — an average of 4,220 mg/day. Girls in the 12-19 year-old age group eat about 2,950 mg/day.
Where do kids get their sodium?
Children ages 6-18 get their daily sodium about:
- 15 percent at breakfast,
- 30 percent at lunch, 39 percent at dinner and
- 16 percent at snack time.
Grocery store and restaurant foods make up 83 percent of the sodium these kids eat, which means it is already in their food before they buy it and they can’t take it out. According to national data about Americans’ eating habits, these foods are the leading contributors to the sodium 6-18 year-olds eat:
- Bread and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Savory snacks (such as chips and pretzels)
- Sandwiches (including burgers)
- Chicken patties, nuggets and tenders
- Pasta mixed dishes (like spaghetti with sauce)
- Mexican mixed dishes (like burritos and tacos)
The top six foods are illustrated in our Salty Six for Kids infographic.
Different brands and restaurant versions of the same foods can have different sodium levels, and some foods come in versions with less sodium. You can make smarter choices about the foods you eat by comparing labels to pick the product with the lowest amount of sodium you can find.
How can too much sodium hurt my child’s health?
Eating too much sodium is associated with higher blood pressure in children and teens, and the effect is even greater if they’re overweight or obese. Kids with high-sodium diets are almost 40 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure than kids with lower-sodium diets.
There is a link between high blood pressure in childhood and high blood pressure in adulthood. High blood pressure in childhood is linked to early development of heart disease and risk for premature death. The number of American children with high blood pressure is on the rise, and about 1 in 6 children ages 8-17 years already has raised blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure during childhood can help lower the risk for high blood pressure as an adult. Eating less sodium can help lower blood pressure in children and teens.
In addition, one study reported that among healthy 14-18 year-old white and African-American teens, those with high sodium intake had more body fat than those who ate less sodium. This is an area of emerging research.
How can I help reduce the sodium my kids get?
Making sure your kids get less sodium today can help prevent heart disease tomorrow, especially for kids who are overweight and obese.
Check out our article “How to Reduce Sodium” for tips to cut back.
Here are more ideas for parents:
- Model healthy eating. Use the American Heart Association’s diet and lifestyle recommendations as a guide.
- Involve your kids when you’re preparing healthy meals. Try some of our kid-friendly recipes.
- Ask your grocery manager to offer your family’s favorite foods in versions with less sodium. And look for the Heart-Check mark Certification seal. Foods bearing the mark are building blocks that make it easier for you to construct a heart-healthy eating plan.
- Before you go out to eat, look up nutrition information online to find the healthier choices.
- Support changes that will lead to healthier meals in child care centers and schools.
- Take the pledge to reduce the sodium you eat. Your healthy habits will likely influence your kids, too.
- Fruit and Veggie Toolkit for Kids – in English and Spanish!
How can we shape children’s taste buds so they won’t miss the extra salt?
Start young! Our taste preferences for salt are shaped by what we eat early in life. Kids may not prefer so much salt if they’re given foods with less sodium from an early age. You can also help by reducing the sodium in their foods – if you reduce the sodium gradually over time, they might not even notice the difference. Eventually, the higher-sodium foods that they used to prefer may taste too salty to them.