The Lowdown on Salt

It has been drummed into us that salt is one of the leading known dietary causes of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, but do we really understand how much we should be adding into the meals we lovingly prepare for our families?  And when it comes to making healthier choices do we need to avoid it at all costs?

The truth is that babies and toddlers actually don’t need any salt to be added to their food. Adding salt is an acquired (and pretty bad) habit that your little munchkin simply doesn’t need to be taught. Their little palates are undeveloped and they are able to get their daily salt requirements through breast milk, formula and by eating a balanced diet.

A 2012 study published by the National Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, showed that higher sodium intake in children is directly linked to high blood pressure in childhood, which in turn leads to high blood pressure in adulthood. Higher salt intake in young children has therefore been associated with early onset of cardiovascular disease and has been found to increase the risk of premature death. Starting your baby on a road to healthy eating habits could very well prevent health issues later on in their life.

Remember that little kidneys are only able to tolerate tiny amounts of salt at a time. The NHS has stipulated salt guidelines for babies and children as follows:

  • 0-12 months: no more than 1g salt daily (0.4g sodium)
  • 1-3 years: no more than 2g salt daily (0.8g sodium)
  • 4-6 years: no more than 3g salt daily (1.2g sodium)

To put this into perpsective you need to have a general understanding of food labels: general rule of thumb is that foods containing more than 1.5g salt or 0.6g sodium per 100g are considered to be high in salt. Low salt foods contain less than 0.3g salt or 0.1 sodium per 100g. It’s therefore pretty darn easy to exceed the daily salt requirement if enough high-salt foods are consumed in one day.

Although we hate to admit it, its only a matter of time before our children discover all the wonders of junk food (from the school tuckshop, at a friend’s house or hidden in dad’s secret stash). So for now, while you still have some control over what goes into their mouths, make a concerted effort to give your baby or toddler the best while their little systems develop.

When adding salt to food is something that tends to be done on autopilot, going out of your way to avoid salty food for your little one seems like hard work. It really isn’t.

Here are my top tips to avoid overloading your tiny person’s diet with salt:

Learning to Pinpoint Hidden Salt in Foods

By becoming aware of food labels and knowing which ‘culprit foods’ to watch out for, you will be able to make smarter grocery shopping decisions for the household.

These culrpits are generally foods that haven’t been specifically formulated for babies and toddlers including; cereals, some tinned foods, condiments and sauces, soup and gravy powders, biscuits and crackers, seasoning mixes, deli meats, microwave meals, processed cheeses and pies.

Commercial baby foods including jars and cereals have been specifically created with a low salt content so that they are safely tolerated by little bodies. Having said that, some toddler foods are, in fact, high-salt culprits: in a 2015 study  it was found that an overwhelming number of pre-packaged toddler meals and snacks were way too high in sodium and sugar.

So my advice would be to check food and drink labels no matter what you are made to believe by pretty packaging and health claims.

Say “Yes!” to Healthy Snacking

When it comes to snacks, steer away from anything with a notorious high salt content such as crisps, crackers, salted popcorn and pretzels (use your common sense!). Although biltong is a fantastic protein snack for little people, it is generally loaded with salt and should therefore be given in moderation.

Instead go for options like cut up fresh fruit, soft cubes of cooked vegetables (to prevent choking), yoghurt, rice cakes and cheese (be sure to opt for low-sodium varieties). Sugar-free nut butters, hummus and cream cheese make tasty and excellent spreads or dippers to accompany other snacks. Again keep checking food labels – even for the items you think are low in salt!

By making homemade snacks you are able to make sure that no uneccessary salt (or any other harmful addditives for that matter) have been added to your baby or toddler’s food. Remember that the more processed and the less natural, the more likely that salt and other presevatives are lurking inside seemingly harmless snacks.

Go for Foods High in Potassium

Potassium is essential in the metabolisation of salt, and it is therefore a good idea to opt for foods that are crammed with potassium when it comes to feeding your little one. High potassium foods include; bananas, mushrooms, yoghurt, avocados, beans, dark leafy vegetables and fish. If your baby or toddler is getting a balanced diet, there isn’t any need to overdo the high potassium foods – they’ll be getting enough in any event.

Get Creative With Flavour

Recipes that call for salt are generally OK for little people: if you take into account that 1tsp salt has been added to an entire recipe, the amount of salt your little one is actually getting is minimal. Having said that, avoid adding any salt as a seasoner to their food, where your baba is likley to be getting a whole lot more salt with each bite.

Instead of relying on salt to add flavour, make use of herbs and spices to keep things adventurous; cooked garlic and onion, cumin, coriander, oregano, basil, thyme, nutmeg, cinnamon, mild curry powder and even a pinch of pepper are all tasty and safe choices (avoid anything too spicy).

By getting into the habit of adding flavour to meals in creative ways other than by using salt, understanding the basics around food labels to make informed decisions and by removing salt from the supper table, you’ll lay the foundations for healthy eating habits for the entire family from the onset.

*The above advice should never replace the advice of your paediatrician, GP or nurse.

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