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Salt a hidden culprit in childhood obesity: study

Sugary drinks may get most of the attention in discussions about Australia’s obesity epidemic, but new research from Deakin…

High salt diets make children more likely to drink soft drinks according to new research from Deakin University. Dion Gillard

Sugary drinks may get most of the attention in discussions about Australia’s obesity epidemic, but new 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 Ms 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.

Ms 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.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    Oh no, this kind of article is heading towards the reason I shy away from traditional media outlets and visit sites like 'The Conversation' instead.

    I think you really need to tone down that headline. This is a cross-sectional study, you can't prove causation. I know you've mentioned it in the article but the emphasis should really be placed higher up and reflected in the headline. This is a classic faux pas of your average newsroom. Please don't head down this path....

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  2. Gary Cassidy

    Interesting direction of research. Try eating chips or french fries without salt - not very tasty. Add salt and they taste good and become easy (almost inevitable) to over-consume. I think the same would go for many processed foods.

    I think it is a bit of a stretch to conclude that "High salt diets make children more likely to drink soft drinks...". Probably more likely that parents who restrict processed foods also restrict sugary drinks.

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    1. Richard Hockey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gary Cassidy

      You are mistaking salt for flavour. Try sticking with a low salt diet for a while and you will see what I mean. I still eat chips and they still taste great.

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    2. Gary Cassidy

      In reply to Gary Cassidy

      "You are mistaking salt for flavour"

      Not really, I was implying that salt creates a flavour. And a favourable flavour at that. I also eat a low salt diet and this exposes so many flavours that salt would otherwise mask. I still don't like chips without salt.

      My kids would hoof down (deep fried) chips when served as usual with salt, but barely touch them without salt.

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  3. Spiro Vlachos

    AL

    The title does not match the article. What the article is saying is that studies confirm that those that eat more salt also eat more food. Why is salt the culprit? If you are eating too much food, why would cutting salt change anything?

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  4. Comment removed by moderator.

  5. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    I read recently that drinking only one soft drink a day increases your chances of getting cancer. I also read a while ago that a study showed that if you go to the toilet during the night, and you turn the lights on, that this will also increase your chances of getting caner. I could rattle off a number of studies that allegedly show this or that but in reality, it has no nearing on life. Incidentally, last year, a longitudinal study revealed that there was no causal link between high blood pressure and salt intake. In fact, the study showed a decrease in blood pressure on some subjects when increasing salt intake. My point is: don't take any study seriously.

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    1. Guy Hibbins

      Medical Officer

      In reply to John Zigar

      I do not think that this is really new and nor is it merely a conspiracy theory that salt promotes soft drink consumption.

      I seem to remember that in Vance Packard's 1957 landmark book on advertising titled "The Hidden Persuaders", he describes how movie theatre operators found that advertisments for soft drink were more effective when they put extra salt in the popcorn.

      Let's face it, when was the last time you saw a movie theatre offering low salt popcorn?

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