Does salt matter for kids?

A new Centers for Disease Control and Preventions study of 6,235 kids and teens found that, over five years, kids who downed the most sodium were twice as likely to have high blood pressure or be at risk for it. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, J Pat Carter)

Is it time to hand kids the salt shaker, order movie popcorn with a side of sodium and stop worrying about the 1,230-1,420 milligrams of sodium currently allowed in school lunches by the USDA (as much as a Big Mac and fries)?  Maybe that’s extreme, but The Great Salt Debate flared up anew this week with a new study of salt’s impact on health - this time in children and teens.

In one corner: A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention look at 6,235 kids and teens. Over five years, kids who downed the most sodium were twice as likely to have high blood pressure or be at risk for it; among overweight and obese kids, the biggest salt-eaters were 3.5 times more likely to have boosted-up blood pressure. Scary fact: Overall, kids 8 to 18 in the study got 3,387 milligrams of sodium (the stuff that makes salt taste salty and that may raise blood pressure) - as much as adults eat and way more than the 1,200 to 2,300 recommended for kids of different ages.

In the other corner: A small but growing stack of studies finding no problems with sodium, at least for adults. One that got loads of press attention in 2011 followed 3,700 grown-ups for eight years and found that lower salt meant more heart-disease deaths and higher salt didn’t mean more high blood pressure. That study’s been criticized for using not salt intake but the amount of sodium people excreted, which may not accurately reflect the fact that you put extra salt on your French fries ... or work hard to keep your food low-sodium.

As kids settle into the school routine, I wondered how much sodium is in cafeteria lunches - and was surprised to find that right now, despite a well-publicized plan to reduce sodium, kids get up to 1,230 to 1,420 milligrams on their lunch tray. That’s as much as a Big Mac and small fries for elementary schoolers, and as much sodium as a Big Mac and large fries for middle and high school students.  Many schools have already adopted healthier standards, but in general the USDA has asked school food programs to trim sodium by about 150 milligrams in 2014, slash another 300 milligrams by 2017 and cut another 300 milligrams by 2022.

I also wondered whether sodium’s the whole story when it comes to rising blood pressure in kids. It turns out that dairy products, fruit and veggies also help determine whether a kid or teen’s readings are healthy or worth worrying about. In general, more is better - in part because these foods give kids the calcium, magnesium and potassium that help keep blood pressure humming a happy tune. And in part because when they eat more of these, they’re downing less of the high-fat, high-calorie fast food that’s packed with sodium and can contribute to overweight and obesity. 

Good reason to pack fruit and veggies for snacks or lunch that you know they might actually eat, to slice and munch them at home, and even to choose them yourself (you’ll lead by example) at home and when you’re out to eat.