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American youths consume way too much salt, CDC says

Pizza with meat (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Pizza with meat (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT) MCT

More than 90 percent of U.S. schoolchildren eat more salt than they should, taking in an average of nearly 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day, according to a government report released Tuesday.

That’s nearly 1.5 teaspoons of salt each day _ and about 1,000 milligrams more than the federal government recommends.

But hiding the kitchen salt shaker won’t do much to curb the problem because most of the sodium in kids’ diets come from foods prepared outside the home. In fact, 43 percent of sodium consumed by U.S. children ages 6-18 comes from 10 restaurant, cafeteria and processed food favorites that are staples of the American youth diet.

Store-bought processed foods like savory snacks, cold cuts, cheese and soups account for 65 percent of the sodium that children eat.

Thirteen percent comes from fast food and traditional restaurant fare like pizza, Mexican dishes, burgers and other sandwiches. Another 9 percent comes from school cafeteria favorites like chicken nuggets, pasta dishes and bread and rolls.

The findings are from a 2009-2010 survey of nearly 3,000 youngsters by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the latest data to chronicle America’s dangerous love affair with salty food. Such treats may hit the spot for youngsters, but the short-term fix could jeopardize their long-term health.

High-sodium diets can lead to high blood pressure, a major cause of heart disease and stroke. One in six U.S. youngsters ages 8 to 17 already has elevated blood pressure.

And while federal guidelines recommend that children eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, African-American children and all others with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should eat no more than 1,500 milligrams per day.

Daily salt consumption declined slightly over the last 10 years among youngsters ages 13 and under, but adolescents have not made similar progress. The CDC study found that the average high school student consumes 3,672 milligrams of sodium each day _ far more than younger children.

“A poor diet in childhood can help lay the foundation for future health problems,” said Ileana Arias, the CDC’s principal deputy director. “And the fact that young kids and teens are consuming so much sodium these days and adapting increasingly bad dietary habits is certainly cause for concern.”

Combating the problem will require a long-term strategy that involves schools, restaurants, food manufacturers and federal regulators. But parents also can take action by creating meals rich in fruits and vegetables, picking low-sodium options at the grocery store and requesting menu nutrition information at restaurants to make healthier choices.

Just leaving deli cheese off of a sandwich, choosing low-sodium potato chips and drinking water instead of a sport drink can slash 490 milligrams of sodium from a meal, Arias said.

“It’ll take a collective effort; parents and caregivers, schools, communities and places that sell, make or serve food to really make a difference and ensure healthier options,” she said.

Some restaurants are also getting involved. Darden Restaurants, owners of Bahama Breeze and Olive Garden restaurants, has committed to reduce sodium in certain menu items by 20 percent, Arias said. So have Taco Bell and ConAgra Foods, she said. ConAgra is the largest private-label packaged food business in North America, according to the company.

New federal nutrition standards are expected to cut sodium in school cafeteria meals by 25 to 50 percent by 2022, said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The CDC report found that this alone would cut sodium intake for school kids by an average of 75 to 150 milligrams per day over the course of a year, he said.

Two-thirds of USDA foods provided to schools for meals have no salt added, Concannon said.

A poll released this week by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association found that 75 percent of parents support limiting salt in school meals.

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