Research shows that adults who eat too much salt, over time, are at risk of high blood pressure. However, there is evidence that eating too much salt as a child can also affect blood pressure, increasing the risk of illness later in life.
Habits learned in childhood tend to carry through to adulthood, and this includes dietary habits. Learning to add salt or salty sauces to food at the dining table is typically something children learn from older family members. In addition, liking salt and salty foods is a learned taste preference and therefore, government recommendations that adults reduce their salt intake would be much more successful if children did not learn to develop a taste for salt in the first place.
How much salt should children eat?
The government recommends the following maximum salt intakes for children:
|Age||Maximum Salt Intake|
|0-6 months||<1g / day|
|6-12 months||1g / day|
|1-3 years||2g / day|
|4-6 years||3g / day|
|7-10 years||5g / day|
|11 years and above||6g / day|
Fig1: SACN Recommended maximum salt intakes
How can I reduce the amount of salt my child eats?
Babies only need very small amounts of salt and their kidneys are too immature to cope with any added salt. Therefore salt should never be added to any food that is cooked for your baby. Breast milk naturally meets all of a baby’s nutritional requirements, including a tiny amount of salt and infant formula is specially formulated to contain the right amount of salt. It is always important to make up formula milk correctly to the manufacturers instructions.
During weaning, no salt should be added to any foods. Weaning products do not have any added salt and on tasting them you may find they taste bland, but there is no need to add extra seasoning - babies are used to a much lower salt intake than adults and so are able to appreciate the natural flavour of food.
Try to use products developed specifically for weaning, or make weaning food fresh at home. Processed foods not made specifically for babies, such as cooking sauces or ready meals, can be high in salt and so these would not be suitable for babies.
Once your child is eating the same foods as the rest of the family, it is typically at this point that their salt intake will increase dramatically and so it is important to continue not adding any salt to their food. This will also benefit the rest of the family!
Simple changes can be made to a child’s diet to make sure they don’t consume too much salt. For example:
- Give children snacks such as yogurt, carrot sticks and fruit rather than crisps
- Swap ham and cheese sandwiches for chicken or egg mayonnaise
- Swap sausages for freshly cooked lean meat or fish
- Check labels of products such as sauces, bread and cereal to find the lowest salt option
Homemade meals cooked using fresh ingredients are naturally lower in salt than convenience meals and processed food.
Teenagers should limit their consumption of salty savoury and sweet snacks such as crisps, chips, supermarket bought biscuits and cake slices; and takeaway foods such as chicken nuggets, pizza and burgers which can greatly increase their salt intake.
How does a high salt diet affect children's health?
We know now that eating too much salt in childhood can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of illness later in life. Too much salt in childhood may also increase the likelihood of the following conditions:
- Osteoporosis - Eating too much salt can cause calcium to be lost from bones which increases the risk of osteoporosis, a bone condition causing fragility and breakage. Although osteoporosis is most common amongst older people, studies have shown that the effect of salt on calcium can be detected in children and continue in to adult life. This increases the risk of osteoporosis later in life, particularly for girls
- Obesity - Whilst salt is not a direct cause of obesity, it is a major influencing factor through its effect on soft drink consumption. Salt makes you thirsty and increases the amount of fluid you drink. 31% of the fluid drunk by 4-18 year olds is sugary soft drinks which have been shown to be related to childhood obesity.
For more information on how to reduce the amount of salt in children's diets, please click to view our leaflet Salt and the Health of Your Children