Let’s Talk Salt

Spices, herbs and pepper can be used as generously as you and your little one like to flavor food. Salt — a source of sodium — is a totally different story.

When we first introduced solids to our daughter, our pediatrician simply gave us the directive, “Anything goes except for honey and watch the amount of salt you use.” We like our pediatrician a lot but didn’t feel great with the freedom (i.e. lack of information) we were given. I ended up doing a bunch of research to figure out what I needed to know about salt….er, sodium.

Below I’ll outline both the the purpose of sodium in our diets and the role salt plays as well as briefly discuss how too much can be harmful. I will also explain how much sodium is OK for various ages and how to reduce sodium intake to ensure you meet the recommended guidelines. Of course, always consult with your pediatrician if you have specific concerns about your child’s diet or nutrition.

Salt? Sodium? What’s the difference?

Remember the Periodic Table? Sodium is an element on that chart (Na to be exact). Salt is only partly sodium because it is a compound of Sodium and Chloride (NaCl hello, physical science class flashbacks). When we talk about limiting salt, we should really be talking about limiting sodium.

The Good

Sodium is a critical component of how our bodies function, so it’s important to have it! In fact, it would be extremely hard to have a sodium-free diet (and deadly) since it is found in nearly every type of whole food — from eggs to fruit to milk to bread. Sodium controls fluid balances in our bodies, as well as how our muscles and nerves work. Healthy bodies are really good at regulating sodium levels — too much, and you’ll get thirsty and drink water, speeding up the elimination of excess sodium through the kidneys. Sodium is not only needed for healthy bodies — but salt is a wonderful flavor enhancer to foods when used wisely.

The Bad

As with anything, too much of anything can increase health risks. Too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, obesity and most commonly, dehydration, which is particularly bad for young children who often do not drink enough water during the day and can become dehydrated quickly. Salt makes foods taste “better” — but it can also alter our tastebuds, making us desire saltier foods as our tastebuds acclimate. This is problematic for little ones as we establish healthy eating habits and foundations.

How much is too much?

Around the globe, children under a year are recommended <400 mg sodium/day as their kidneys are still developing. After a year, the US deviates from the rest of the world and suggests everyone age 2 and up should consume less than 2,300 mg sodium/day with the exception of some groups of people who should limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg sodium/day. Well, this made me pause for a second. Basically, the guidelines suggest that a 2 year old can consume the same amount as an adult — and children are not called out on the special exception lists (except African Americans or those with diabetes, high blood pressure or chronic kidney disease).  

Comparatively, European requirements are much more specific to children’s sodium intake. So, I follow the ones listed by the NHS.uk because they are far more clear to me and just make more sense. Sometimes you just have to make decisions with your gut! 

UK Salt (and Sodium) Limits By Age

Up to 12 Months
<0mg
Sodium per day
1-3 Years
0mg
Sodium per day
4-6 Years
0mg
Sodium per day
7-10 Years
0mg
Sodium per day
11+ Years
0mg
Sodium per day

How to reduce sodium in your family’s diet.

Because salt and sodium are so closely related in our minds, when we think of reducing sodium we simply think of reducing things that are salty: table salt, cooking with salt, potato chips, etc. That’s not true and won’t do much to reduce sodium in you family’s diet.

Sodium is not necessarily “salty” — so you can’t use taste as a judgement of where sodium is found. Sodium is naturally found virtually every whole food. It is especially high in most processed foods like store bought breads, string cheese, deli meats and cold cuts, crackers, cookies, cereals, jarred salsas, fruit and vegetable juices, canned vegetables, and even injected into many chicken breasts and other uncooked meats. It is exceptionally high in most restaurants (not just fast food joints, either). The problem is not the salt shaker nor a singular type of food: it is a cumulative one. Many food items are under the recommended limits of sodium — but they add up so quickly throughout the day that you can easily 

Don’t stress over each meal, but do be mindful of your family’s overall sodium intake. If you follow these tips & tricks below, you’ll be creating a healthy foundation for years to come.

When grocery shopping, limit or avoid processed and packaged foods.

Sodium is hidden in so many packaged items in the grocery store that when possible, just avoid buying processed or packaged items in the first place! Bread and cereal are two of the biggest offenders (they can even have more sodium than a bag of potato chips!). Check labels and choose products that offer lower sodium levels. There is usually a “low sodium” or “no salt added” option for many deli meats, cheeses, jarred and canned foods. Try to swap out pre-made sauces, dressings, soups, stocks and snacks with homemade versions where you can so you can control the amount of added salt and rely more on natural sodiums found in whole foods.

Eat out less frequently…or be smart about it.

Restaurants are some of the worst sodium offenders; offering huge portions of extremely sodium-dense foods. The logical and easiest thing to do is minimize the amount you eat out. The second thing is to be more judicious about ordering food. Some menus offer low-sodium options, so start there. As a general rule of thumb, avoid foods that offer processed ingredients (think lunch meats, dairy, processed or cured meats like pepperoni and bacon, or refined white breads) or ask to substitute those items with raw fruits or vegetables. Avoid fried foods and ask for salt to not be added when the kitchen is preparing your food. Ask for condiments, sauces and dressings to be either left off or served on the side so you can control how much you use. 

Rinse canned vegetables before using.

Whether you buy regular or low sodium canned items, this is a great tip: Simply rinse the veggies in a colander under running water and drain before using. This works especially well for items like canned beans, artichokes, asparagus, green beans, corn and carrots.

Season foods with herbs, spices and unique finishing salts

For me, that finishing sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and salt is almost a table side ritual. I still use the pepper grinder, but in lieu of salt I reach for some chopped herbs or a spice like paprika, cinnamon or cumin to give a touch of color and flavor burst. I’ve also started making my own “house salt blend” that I keep in a little salt cellar and will occasionally use as the ritualistic sprinkle. It’s primarily pepper, garlic powder, paprika, dried parsley with just a bit of kosher salt. I grab a pinch and sprinkle it over food like eggs, pasta and vegetables for just a touch of saltiness but mostly other good flavors.

Sprinkle, don’t shake

 

When you do add salt tableside (or even while cooking), never shake it directly from the container onto the food. Instead, shake it into your hand and then sprinkle it in a pinching motion onto food. You’ll use far less!