Family Matters

Is Too Much Salt a Trigger for Childhood Obesity?

Cravings for unhealthy foods often go hand in hand, which isn't good news for young waistlines.

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Cravings for unhealthy foods often go hand in hand, which isn’t good news for young waistlines.

Research published in the journal Pediatrics shows that the more salt children consumed, the more they slurped up sugar-sweetened drinks. And those who drank more than a serving a day were 26% more likely to be overweight or obese, suggesting that salt may be part of the chain of events contributing to the childhood-obesity epidemic.

(MORE: Goodbye, Big Soda: New York Becomes First City to Ban Large-Sized Soft Drinks)

“There’s a lot of experimental evidence in animals and in adults that shows that the more salt you consume, the more you actually get thirsty and consume fluid,” says Carley Grimes, the study’s lead author, a dietitian and doctoral student at Deakin University in Australia. “The amount of salt in your blood rises and to control it, your body gets thirsty.” The problem is, to quench that thirst, children are more likely to reach for sugared sodas than for water.

Grimes and her colleagues tracked 4,283 Australian kids ages 2 to 16 to examine the relationship between salt intake and sugary drinks. On average, the kids were eating about 6 g of salt per day (one teaspoon equals 5 g), when they should have been consuming up to half as much, between 3 g and 5 g, depending on their age.

Around 62% of the children in the study reported that they regularly drank sugar-sweetened drinks — soda, flavored mineral waters, sports and energy drinks and fruit drinks. The study did not include 100% fruit juice.

(MORE: Cutting Out Soda Curbs Children’s Weight Gain, Studies Show)

Putting the two together, the researchers calculated that for every gram of salt those children ate, they also drank 17 g of sugary drinks. The kids who did not commonly drink sugar-sweetened beverages wound up eating more than half a gram of salt less than the group of kids who drank sugary drinks. “That’s significant,” says Grimes. “It’s a bag of chips a day.”

The findings don’t surprise Karen Congro, a nutritionist and director of the Wellness for Life program at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. To avoid overdoing the sodium, she suggests tasting food before salting it and cooking at home where the amount of salt can be controlled. “We can probably go further and say that kids who eat salty foods and drink sweetened beverages are also more likely to eat fewer vegetables, less calcium-rich foods, such as milk and yogurt, and more fast food,” she said in a statement.

(MORE: Banning Sugared Drinks in Schools Doesn’t Lower Student Consumption)

In fact, the 23% of children in the study who consumed more than one serving of sugary drinks per day were 26% more likely to tip the scales at an unhealthy weight.

Even aside from the association with obesity — which can lead to heart disease and diabetes — salt can raise blood pressure, and that can be an independent trigger for heart problems. Says Grimes: “This adds more weight to the literature out there about why we should reduce salt.” In more than one way.