Sodium is an essential nutrient for maintaining normal heart, muscle, nerve and metabolic function. But most kids are getting way too much of it: 3,400 mg daily on average, more than twice the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 1,500 mg. Just as in adults, higher sodium intake in children is associated with elevated blood pressure, and the effect is even more pronounced in overweight and obese kids, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, exposing children to a high-sodium diet means they’ll develop a taste preference for salty foods, which can be difficult to overcome, says Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD, FAHA, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont.
While it’s important to limit the salt we use in cooking and add at the table, the bigger problem is the packaged food we buy at the supermarket: “On average, 77 percent of our sodium intake comes from processed foods,” says Johnson. It is possible to retrain taste buds to be satisfied with less salt: She suggests carefully reading labels and choosing lower-sodium varieties whenever possible. Here are seven sneaky sources of sodium to keep in mind:
Bread and rolls
Though bread may not taste salty, it’s one of the biggest sources of sodium in kids’ diets because they tend to eat so much of it, explains Johnson. Some brands contain 250 mg of sodium per slice — that’s 500 mg in a sandwich before you put anything on it. Look for low-sodium 100% whole-grain breads and rolls.
“Generally, nitrate-cured meats like ham, salami and hot dogs will be higher in sodium,” says Johnson. Go for nitrate-free options, or cook your own turkey, chicken or beef to use in sandwiches.
Processed cheeses like American “singles” and Velveeta are usually higher in salt than fresher varieties. Read labels before buying, and try naturally lower-sodium cheeses like Swiss, goat (chèvre) and ricotta.
Breakfast cereals really vary in sodium, and even “healthy” kinds can be packed with salt — for example, 1 cup of Grape Nuts contains 540 mg. Johnson suggests mixing your favorite cereal with a sodium-free variety like shredded wheat or plain oatmeal.
Chicken and turkey are naturally low in sodium, but manufacturers sometimes inject them with a salty brine to make them juicier and more tender, says Johnson. Yet this “enhanced” poultry can legally be labeled “all natural,” so it’s important to read the ingredient list before buying.
At the pizza parlor, stay away from salty toppings like pepperoni and sausage and opt for fresh veggies like mushrooms and peppers. Or make your own at home with a whole-grain crust and low-sodium sauce and cheese.
Canned vegetables and beans
While veggies and legumes are rich in filling fiber and other nutrients, the salt content in canned varieties can be high. Johnson recommends draining and rinsing canned items before cooking to remove some of the sodium.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Consult your physician before beginning any diet or exercise program.