Salt and Children

The effects of salt on children’s healthBaby being fed

Children need very little salt to stay healthy and should eat much less than adults.

While it is well known that salt increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack in older people, the harmful effects of salt on children are much less well recognised – too much salt in childhood produces a serious rise in blood pressure that progressively worsens with age.

Eating too much salt probably also plays a role in childhood obesity as salt makes people thirsty so that they drink more soft drinks which are often high in calories.

How much salt are children eating?

Most children in Australia are likely to be eating more salt than is recommended. In a recent survey of parents, over half reported that their children were eating salty snacks at least a few times each week. Most knew that salt could have harmful effects on children’s health and were concerned about the amount of salt in their children’s food.

The recently released 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that children aged 2-16 years are consuming amounts of salt well above the recommended maximum levels. Boys were found to be consuming up to over 9 grams of salt, and girls up to over 6 grams of salt.

How much salt should children eat?

The National Health and Medical Research Council has set the following Recommended Upper Daily levels for infants and children:

1-3 2.5
4-8 3.5
9-13 5
14-18 5.75

These recommendations are, however, just a practical guide. For optimal health most children (and adults too) actually need much less.

The benefits of lowering salt

The benefits of salt reduction are not restricted to adults. Children that reduce their salt intake have lower blood pressures, will eat a generally more healthy diet and are likely to have fewer health problems and better eating patterns in adulthood.

In particular, reducing salt consumption in childhood will lower the chances of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack in later life. Families with a history of these conditions should make particular efforts to cut out salt and protect the health of their children.

Hidden salt in children’s diets

Most salt in Australian diets comes from processed foods. Foods regularly eaten by children such as bread, breakfast cereals, processed meat, cheese and takeaway meals can have very high levels of ‘hidden’ salt. A hamburger contains as much as 2.3g of salt and a large portion of fries over 1g, so that in just one meal a child can consume over half an adults’ recommended daily intake of salt and almost the entire recommended maximum daily intake for a 4-8year old.

Bread is eaten by most children every day in Australia. Eating just four slices a day could provide 2g of salt – over half the maximum daily intake for a 4-8 year old. According to the National Heart Foundation of Australia, a single ham and cheese sandwich can provide more than a 4-8 year old’s recommended daily intake of salt and one processed cheese stick almost all the salt a three year old should have in a day.

Choosing low salt food

Fortunately, there is a huge range of foods on the market for children and you can make choices to control the amount of salt your children eat. Salt is listed on the nutrition panels of food labels as sodium. It is now generally accepted that:

  • Foods with less than 120mg/100g of sodium are low in salt

See understanding labels for more information on choosing low salt products.