By Liz Bruckner
From the print edition, Winter 2012
Michelle Munn, a mom of four from Bloomfield, N.B., doesn’t avoid the snack aisle in the supermarket, but she does make her selections carefully. An avid label reader, she steers clear of sodium-heavy offerings (anything with 500 mg or more per serving is too much, she says), and does what she can to minimize her family’s sodium intake. “The majority of my husband’s family is overweight and has a history of heart problems and cholesterol issues, so I feel like making an effort early on to help my children establish healthy eating habits is important,” she says.
Sodium and Health
Munn has reason to be concerned. Though sodium is a mineral that ensures that the body has enough fluid to work normally, too much of it in a child’s diet can have a devastating effect on their health as an adult. “Canadians are consuming far more sodium than the tolerable upper limit,” says Matt Mayer a spokesperson with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. A high intake of sodium can result in higher blood pressure, direct vascular and cardiac damage, obesity, stomach cancer, osteoporosis, kidney stones and an increased severity of asthma symptoms. In fact, according to a Statistics Canada survey, a whopping 93 percent of children between the ages of four and eight exceed the tolerable upper intake of 1,900 mg of sodium per day. And once kids develop a taste for salt—which consists of 40 percent sodium (the other 60 percent is chloride)—it can be very hard for them to break the habit, says Natalie Brown, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in White Rock, B.C. “Families are busy and parents are making the decision to include more takeout and sodium-laden packaged foods like pizza, chicken nuggets and pre-made pastas for meals because they’re quick.”
So what can be done? With some nutritional switch-ups and label sleuthing, minimizing your child’s sodium intake is possible.
Switch it Up
We get it: Change can be hard, especially with your six-year-old screaming bloody murder when his favourite hot dogs are taken off the menu. While an immediate phase-out of salty favourites might be challenging, making small changes, such as cutting back on fast food offerings and opting for sodium-free herbs and spices instead of table salt to flavour food, can have a big impact.
1. Get Informed
A word to the wise: Food packaging can be grossly misleading when it comes to sodium content. Even foods claiming to have reduced or low levels of sodium are often still loaded with it, so make a habit of checking nutrition labels. Keep an eye out for sodium from additives such as monosodium glutamate (or MSG) and sodium nitrite. Also keep in mind that for this age group, choosing foods with 200 mg of sodium or less per serving is the guide to follow.
3. Pick Up Potassium
Potassium-rich foods such as potatoes, dried fruits, bananas and beans not only come to the body’s rescue by regulating blood pressure hikes caused by sodium, but eating them can also offset the desire for saltier offerings.
3. Get Fresh
The fact remains that only half of Canadian children are eating the recommended amount of fruit and veggies, says Mayer. “Children need to be presented with healthy foods and snacks like fruit and vegetables and not the chips and cookies that are so prevalent in today’s society,” he says.
4. Be Lunch Smart
Just two slices of deli meat can contain 25 percent of a day’s allowance for children this age, which doesn’t leave much room for the easy, prepackaged lunch options. To make sure your child isn’t loading up on sodium halfway through the day, opt for sodium-reduced products and fill their lunch bag with healthy, whole foods as much as possible.