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Extra Salt: Most Youth Athletes Don't Need It

Heavy Sweaters, Those Who Crave Salt Are Exception to Rule

There is a general movement among many soccer players and other athletes to avoid salt. However, this is not always necessary; in fact, if your child or teen is a heavy sweater, or craves salty foods, he may benefit from the extra salt. 

Extra salt not usually needed

The sodium in salt helps maintain proper fluid balance between the water in and around your body's cells. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,800 milligrams of sodium per day (a teaspoon of salt is about 2,300 mg.).

Young athletes exercising for an hour or less are unlikely to be losing gallons of sweat, nor significant amounts of sodium, in which case whatever salt she loses can be replaced by the sodium that naturally occur in foods she consumes as part of her regular diet.

Even if your child is playing in a soccer tournament and sweating heavily for two or three hours, he is unlikely to become sodium depleted. He might lose about 1,800 to 5,600 milligrams of sodium, but the average 150-pound person's body contains about 97,000 milligrams of sodium. Hence, a small 2 to 6% loss is relatively insignificant.

When extra salt needed

Your child may need extra salt if he:

  • is a salty sweater

  • finds himself craving salt,

  • is exercising moderately hard for more than four to six hours in the heat, or

  • is exercising intensely for shorter periods. 

PretzelRegular sports drinks can help replace some of the lost sodium but generally contain too little sodium to balance sweat loss.  Instead, your child should choose

  • endurance sports drinks

  • salted pretzels

  • vegetable juice

  • olives

  • pickles

  • soups (chicken noodle soup is notoriously high in sodium)

  • a ham and cheese sandwhich

  • salted crackers; and/or

  • salt sprinkled on baked potatoes or other foods.

Remember: sports drinks should be consumed only as appropriate, before, during and after exercise that last more than an hour, not as a standard mealtime beverage.  Remember also that the more your child trains in the heat, the less sodium he loses because his body learns to conserve sodium as well as other electrolytes

There is no harm if your child eats salty foods after sports. If she tends to avoid the salt shaker and processed foods, which are often high in sodium, you should add a bit more salt to your child's diet.  These will help your child retain fluids and reduce the risk of dehydration.

If your child repeatedly experiences muscle cramps, experiment with boosting your child's sodium intake on a daily basis, especially if she is engaging hard workouts and extended training in the summer heat.

Created June 10, 2010

© Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD, is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and best-selling author.  She counsels active people in her practice at Healthworks, a fitness center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Her new book, Food Guide for Soccer: Tips & Recipes from the Pros and other books, including her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and cyclists are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

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