Sugary drinks may get most of the attention in discussions about the obesity epidemic, but research from Deakin University has found salt may be a silent contributor to the problem.
The study of more than 4,200 Australian children found that children who consume high amounts of salt are also likely to drink more sugary beverages, putting them at risk of unhealthy weight gain.
“High salt diets not only put children at risk of serious long-term health problems, such as developing high blood pressure later in life which is a major cause of stroke and heart disease, they are likely to be contributing to the rates of overweight and obesity,” said lead researcher Carley Grimes.
The Deakin researchers looked at the children’s consumption of dietary salt, fluids and sugar sweetened drinks, and found that for every one gram of salt consumed per day, the children drank 46 grams more fluid, with those who reported consuming sugar sweetened drinks drinking 17 grams more for every one gram of salt.
“The study confirms previous findings in other populations giving an Australian context to the idea that a diet high in salt makes children more likely to drink soft drinks,” said Dr Garry Jennings, cardiologist and director of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.
“There is a well known conspiracy theory argued in nutrition circles that high salt content of commercial foods supports an alliance with soft drink manufacturers. However this study also shows that there are many other social factors involved in whether children drink soft drinks or not.”
Dr Jennings said while the study was able to confirm that salt intake is associated with higher soft drink consumption and overweight or obese children, it was not able to provide evidence of causality.
“It could just be that children who eat a lot of commercial and fast foods get them in a package that includes large serving sizes, high fat and refined carbohydrates including soft drinks,” he said.
This is an important study as it provides observations on the Australian diet in Australian children and therefore should help inform national policy. Setting salt, sugar and saturated fat targets for commercial foods, clearer food labelling, better regulation of advertising standards to children would all help address this as healthier nutrition in early life would bring big health benefits and cost savings to the community down the track.
The findings are similar to those published in an earlier UK study said Dr Jacqui Webster, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.
“People who are eating too much salt are also more likely to be eating too much food overall. This further supports the need to urgently reduce children’s salt intake,” Dr Webster said.
Grimes said parents should ensure that water was made available and encouraged so that if children were exposed to high sodium food they did not end up drinking extra sweetened beverages.
“We should also be aiming to reduce the amount of salt that kids are consuming, be that in the food supply or through choosing less processed foods over really highly processed foods,” she said.
Dr Jennings said setting salt, sugar and saturated fat targets for commercial foods, clearer food labelling, and better regulation of advertising standards to children would all help address the issue and would bring big health benefits and cost savings to the community down the track.