Did you know that the recommended amount of salt for children aged 2 to 15 years is less than 1.2 teaspoons (6 grams) per day? While as an adult there is a conscious decision made to cut down on salt intake, doctors say that many people fail to show the same concern for children.
Shedding light on this lesser-known fact, Dr Selvan R, a renowned paediatrician and researcher from Tamil Nadu, told South First, “It’s advisable to limit their daily salt intake to a maximum of one teaspoon. For younger children, the dosage should be reduced to a quarter or half a teaspoon.”
What’s wrong with kids consuming more salt?
Yes, salt is needed to maintain fluid balance in the body and for nerve and muscle function. There is no doubt that salt is important in a healthy, balanced diet.
But Dr Sundar Sankaran, renowned nephrologist and Program Director at Aster Institute of Renal Transplantation, Bengaluru, says that too much salt can give children a taste for salty food and could lead to high blood pressure in later life.
Speaking to South First, Dr Sankaran says, “Salt has always been regarded as a key ingredient in any culinary masterpiece. Our culture places such importance on it that we even have a saying like ‘Namak Haram’, meaning ‘If you have eaten salt from my house, you don’t betray me’. However, this sort of addiction to salt in our culture and dietary habits has wreaked havoc on our health.”
He explains that children up to two years of age don’t need extra salt or sugar and for babies, what comes from the mother’s milk is sufficient.
“From age 2 onwards, salt comes into our diet and if we see the consumption from our experience, Indians consume at least three times the recommended safe intake,” he adds.
Excess salt can cause the body to retain excess water, which, in turn, leads to increase in blood pressure. High blood pressure during childhood can persist into adulthood, elevating the risk of heart disease and stroke later in life. Also, it can adversely affect the heart and blood vessels.
Meanwhile, the kidneys play a vital role in managing the body’s salt balance. Excess salt can strain the kidneys, resulting in kidney disease. A diet high in salt can lead to calcium loss through urine, potentially weakening bones and increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures as children grow older.
“High salt intake can cause the body to retain more water, resulting in bloating and discomfort. This can also bring down the child’s overall physical activity and well-being. Moreover, an accustomed taste to salt can lead to craving for processed and fast foods, which can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and obesity in children,” explains Dr Gopikrishna V, a paediatrician from Bengaluru’s Sevakshetra Hospital.
Whose fault is it anyway?
Doctors say that the rise in salt intake among children often stems from parental decisions and dietary habits within the household. Parents typically play a central role in shaping a child’s eating habits and food choices.
Dr Selvan says that if parents regularly consume meals with high salt content or offer salty snacks and processed foods to their children, it establishes a norm of elevated salt consumption within the family. “Additionally, the availability and accessibility of salty foods at home influence what children consume in the future. Therefore, parents hold a significant responsibility in promoting a balanced diet and monitoring salt intake to ensure their children’s overall health and well-being,” he adds.
Dr Selvan explains, “Tasting salt and sugar are learnt behaviours. If you have not accustomed your child to the taste of salt, they will not like the taste of salt-laden foods. It is we parents who add salt to ‘add taste’. Many vegetables, grains, and pulses already have salt in it.”
He says that it is a common practice, especially among Indian parents, to add salt, spice, or jaggery/sugar even in complementary foods that is given to babies at six months of age. Later, the child gets used to it and refuses to eat any food that is bland.
60% of salt intake from processed foods
Stressing that the real culprits behind the excess salt in our diet are fast foods and processed foods, Dr Sankaran adds that these convenient meals are loaded with salt to enhance their taste and preserve them for longer periods.
Meanwhile, there have been several reports and criticism against the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for not making it mandatory for packaged foods to provide information of salt quantity. A few products just mention “Sodium per 100 g” and this can be deceitful as parents won’t know how much salt there actually is in a particular product.
Doctors say that at least 60 percent of India’s salt intake comes from processed food. As per reports from the ICMR, 30 percent of Indians have high blood pressure at a young age.
As per the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the US, about 77 percent of sodium eaten by children comes from processed and prepared foods and, of this, about 43 percent just from 10 common food types — pizza, bread/rolls, cold cuts/cured meats, savoury snacks, sandwiches, cheese, chicken patties/nuggets, pasta dishes, Mexican dishes, and soups.
“Interestingly, all of these are available and consumed by a majority of children in India too. Along with this, even at home, food is being cooked with high amounts of salt, increasing the salt intake to much more than what is recommended,” explains Dr Selvan.
What is the recommended amount of salt?
Speaking to South First, Dr Sudhir Kumar, a neurologist with Apollo Hospitals in Hyderabad, says that according to a survey, about 90 percent of the children exceeded the daily recommended intake of salt. He says that most of this salt comes from fast food, restaurant food, and school cafeteria food.
He adds that one way to cut down sodium intake in children is to encourage them to have home-cooked food. “The flavour of food cooked at home can be enhanced with spices and herbs, despite adding less amount of salt,” he explains.
He stresses that while offering packaged foods to children, it is important to check the label to ensure that sodium/salt content is on the lower side.
Meanwhile, he adds that it is important for adults to also follow the same diet (preference of home-cooked food), as children tend to copy elders.
The other reason to emphasise the importance of healthy eating among children is that the habits formed during childhood carries into adult life.
“The WHO has recommended that children aged 2 to 15 years of age should reduce sodium intake to control blood pressure. However, the association between excess salt intake and hypertension is not as clear in children, as it is in adults,” explains Dr Sudhir.
Meanwhile it can be noted that WHO has suggested to reduce the exposure to foods high in salt in both children and adults. WHO has also advised countries to develop their own nutrition profile models based on WHO models.
This is the amount of salt for children recommended by WHO and experts:
1 to 3 years: Not more than 2 g per day
4 to 6 years: Not more than 3 g per day
7 to 10 years: Not more than 5 g salt a day
11 years and over: Not more than 6 g salt a day