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Salt, Part 1

Heath dangers in Canadian children start with high levels of salt Add to ...

When David Beeching was taken to the hospital three years ago after breaking his leg skiing, he was anticipating X-rays, a cast and a painful recovery. He didn't expect the news that he was suffering from a life-threatening condition.

Doctors told David's family that he had seriously high blood pressure, a condition normally associated with the overweight and middle-aged. But David was neither of those things. He seemed fit and healthy - and he was only 13.

By the time he started receiving treatment, though, his heart was enlarged, indicating an elevated risk of cardiac attack or failure. Doctors prescribed medications, but most of all they ordered him to cut down drastically on salt - the prime suspect in causing hypertension.

David Beeching's predicament is increasingly common among Canadian children and teens, and experts say it is due to the dangerously large amount of salt most of them consume - which for some can be sheer poison.

Hypertension may not sound so grim in itself, but it is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke, which kill more Canadians a year than anything but cancer.

Canadians overall take in about 3,100 milligrams of sodium a day - more than double the recommended intake for any age group and significantly higher than the upper limit most people can consume without compromising their health (2,300 mg, or roughly one teaspoon of table salt).

But a survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2004 found that even toddlers were consuming more than 1,900 mg of sodium a day, nearly double what is recommended for them.

What's more, 90 per cent of children 4 to 8 years old were not only consuming more than the upper tolerable amount of sodium for their age group every day - they were exceeding the maximum safe levels for adults. (For comprehensive figures, see sidebar, "A pinch to a binge.")

High blood pressure and heart disease aren't the only consequences. Excessive sodium has also been associated with an increased risk for stomach cancer, kidney disease, osteoporosis and asthma.

Doctors in Canada and the U.S., such as pediatric urologist Walid Farhat at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, also have noted a rise in the number of young patients suffering from kidney stones - a disturbing trend they link to the way high sodium increases the body's excretion of calcium.

"We see patients from the age of 1 all the way up to the age of 15," Dr. Farhat says. "It's all across North America."

Reducing Canada's salt intake is no simple matter, though. After David's family got the news, says his mother France Savoie, she determinedly "scared him off" the habit of adding extra salt to his food. But since then, she has learned that putting away the salt shaker isn't nearly enough.

Even though she's a full-time nurse in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que., Ms. Savoie had never realized just how much of the sodium consumed by modern Canadians is already in the food we buy. Seventy to 80 per cent of it comes from packaged, processed foods in which sodium is relied on as a preservative and to enhance flavour.

That, of course, includes salty snacks such as potato chips and pizza. But some of the worst offenders are much less obvious, such as store-bought tomato sauce and breakfast cereal.

The Statistics Canada researchers didn't even include salt added by the consumer. It was hardly necessary, given that a cup of Cheerios with a cup of skim milk, a cup of Campbell's tomato soup and one large flax tortilla add up to more than the adult daily recommended intake - and that's without having any dinner.

Now, Canada's leading health experts are finally sounding the alarm that excess sodium is creating an entirely preventable public-health crisis. But so far Ottawa has done little to address the issue.

Five million Canadians have high blood pressure. Norm Campbell, a medical professor at the University of Calgary, says that simply reducing dietary sodium to nearer recommended amounts would eliminate one case in five.

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