An awareness of salt levels in our foods and its impact on our cardiovascular health is certainly not a new concept and the latest media reports suggest that levels of salt are slowly decreasing in part due to the manufacturers, retailers and public awareness. As the public focus has been drawn towards sugar we mustn’t take our eye off the role of sodium, its impact on our children’s health and how we can maintain optimal levels.
What it does
Both sodium and chloride make up salt, which play important roles in our bodies. A large proportion of our overall sodium is found on the surface of bone crystals, so it can be readily released into the bloodstream if required. The remaining sodium is found in the body’s fluid and in nerve and muscle tissue.
In the body, sodium has an important role in maintaining fluid balance, nerve transmission, including signals to our brains, and muscle contraction. For children it also plays a role in neurological development as it activates an enzyme that produces brain cells important for logical and creative thinking. Chloride is important for electrolyte balance.
Dietary sodium levels are also linked to calcium excretion, therefore its association with bone health is an important consideration.
Forms of salt
The table salt you buy from supermarkets is a highly processed product and often has the trace minerals removed during processing. There is some research to suggest less processed products like sea salt or Himalayan rock salt are superior products and contain minerals that help the body maintain better balance. In contrast to adding salt to meals different flavouring, spices or seaweeds can also serve as an ideal alternative and provide a different range of nutrients.
Salt is extensively used in food processing and manufacturing which is thought to account for in excess of 75% of our total sodium consumption. Canned meats, soups, condiments, pickled foods, low-fat products and snacks (crisps and crackers) tend to have very high levels.
As a child’s excretory system is developing being aware of the dietary intake of salt is important. Excess consumption can increase the risk of health conditions for young children as well as their long-term health into adolescence. Research suggests that if high sodium levels are consumed at a young age this can increase the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in adulthood. There are also very close correlations with the amount of salt consumed and sweetened drink intake, which is also associated with diabetes, bone health and obesity.
Interactions in the body:
The function of sodium is closely related to potassium. If sodium levels are increased, perhaps through dietary sources such as shellfish, processed foods and added table salt, increasing potassium levels can be beneficial to help maintain stable blood pressure. Studies suggest the ratio of these two nutrients is an important factor for health and whilst sodium has an important role to play in controlling water in the body, acid/alkali balance and muscle contraction, most people generally have too much.
How to encourage less salt consumption:
- Taste food first – try to avoid adding extra salt
- Experiment with seasonings – olive oils, balsamic vinegars, seaweed sprinkles, sweet spices or chillies can be great alternatives
- Get label aware – take note of levels of sodium ranges on products
- Buy unsalted products – such as nuts, seeds, crackers
- Buy unprocessed products as much as possible
- Opt for canned products in oil/spring water rather than brine
- Consider portion size (go smaller if higher in salt)
Actions for Early Years:
Introduce young children to the role their heart plays in their body and the impact of the foods they eat which can affect heartbeat. Demonstrate that you can feel your heart beat by touching your chest and by also feeling for a pulse. There are also some great monitors which allow you to show heart rate visibly which are certainly used as children progress into primary school. Comparing sodium and potassium can be useful and how they work closely. Talking about foods to protect our heart beat, rich in potassium, can also be discussed and encouraging children to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables daily.
Helping children to understand the importance of real food for keeping us optimally healthy is vital in early years settings and rather than talking about sodium as a ‘bad’ thing it does in fact have a clear role but its moderate consumption is important in line with the importance of balance in our overall diet.
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years.
Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has also published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’.