Salt and Sugar—Ingredients for Childhood Obesity

Healthnotes Newswire (March 6, 2008)—Every bartender knows that the way to sell more beer is to keep the salted snack bowl full, but it may not be common wisdom that the amount of fluid we drink is directly related to the amount of salt in our food.

Children, like adults, are eating more and more highly processed high-salt foods, and because their drinks are often sugary sodas, the consequences could be compounded. A new study has found a direct link between the amount of salt kids eat and the amount of sugary beverages (including soda and sports drinks) they drink, suggesting that eating less salt might be one way to counter the rising rate of childhood obesity.

The study, published in Hypertension, used data from 1,688 children and adolescents between 4 and 18 years old who completed the National Diet and Nutrition Survey for young people in Great Britain. The children kept a seven-day record of their food and drink intake, with those seven and older also recording their activity level.

Only 9% of the fluid consumed by the kids was water. Soft drinks represented 56% of total fluid intake, and more than half of the soft drinks were sugar-sweetened. Salt intake was closely linked to total fluid and sugary soft drink intake in all age groups and at all levels of physical activity. The researchers calculated that for every gram of salt in the diet, children would drink 27 grams (about one ounce) of sugary soft drink.

“Children aged 4 to 18 years in the United Kingdom consumed on average about 6 grams [1 tsp] of salt per day at the time of the survey [1997],” commented study author Dr. Feng J. He at the Blood Pressure Unit, St George’s University of London. “That is a lot of salt. We estimate that reducing this by half could reduce sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption by an average of more than two soft drinks per week per child. This would be equivalent to taking 244 calories out of each child’s diet every week. Over time, this could have a significant impact on reducing overweight and obesity in childhood.”

Concerned by the rapidly rising rates of childhood overweight, obesity, and diabetes, many parents are searching for ways to help their kids develop healthy eating habits. Cutting down on sugary foods is one important way, but the sugar in soft drinks—which in the average kid represents a significant portion of their calorie intake—is often overlooked. The evidence from this study suggests that cutting down on salt is another way to reduce kids’ sugar intake and contribute to lifelong healthy eating habits.

Help your kids sidestep salt & sugar

In addition to obesity, too much sugar has been associated with diabetes, hyperactivity, and other problems in children, and salt may contribute to kids developing high blood pressure. To offset unhealthful snacking, parents may experiment with other choices:

• Savory snacks: Baby carrots (or any other finger-sized veggies), popcorn (lightly salted or with brewer’s yeast), bite-sized hunks of cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and edamame (cooked soybeans).

• Sweet snacks: Dried fruits or fresh are both good choices: try grapes and harder varieties, such as pears, apples, and mangos cut up into fun sizes and shapes. Homemade juice popsicles are also a fun (and easy) treat.

• Thirst quenchers: Spritzers (bubbly water mixed with unsweetened juice), warm or cold herbal teas—or even water! Try to limit diet drinks, as the safety of artificial sweeteners has not been evaluated in long-term studies.

Whenever possible, look for low-salt, low-sugar, less-refined versions of the snacks your kids love.

(Hypertension 2008;51:629–34)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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