(CBS News) When it comes to childhood obesity, experts are not shy about suggesting a link between consumption of calorie-filled sugary drinks and ballooning obesity rates in the United States.
However, a new study finds a target that its researchers say may be a better way to head off the obesity epidemic in kids and prevent them from reaching for a sugary drink in the first place: Salt intake.
"In addition to the known benefits of lowering blood pressure, salt reduction strategies may be useful in childhood obesity prevention efforts," concluded the researchers from the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University in Burwood, Australia.
The researchers tracked the eating and drinking habits of 4,200 Australian kids who were between 2 and 16 years old. They found kids who took in the most salt through their diets also took in the most sugary drinks in the study.
For every one gram of salt per day, children took in 17 grams per day more of a sugary drink. Children in the study pool who drank more than one serving per day of a sugary drink -- or about 9 ounces of soda -- were 26 percent more likely to be obese.
Older children and those with a low socioeconomic status were found to be more likely to drink sugary drinks. The study was published Dec. 10 online in Pediatrics.
While it's no secret that salty food can cause thirst, experts were quick to point out the study did not show cause and effect for salt's role in obesity. However, the research highlights the ever-present need for people to eat healthier.
Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, called the suggestion that cutting salt may impact a child's weight a "stretch" to HealthDay, saying kids may reach for sweet drinks because they like the taste of them, not because salt is making them do it.
"We can't necessarily say childhood obesity is salt's fault -- or sugar-sweetened beverages' fault," Kirsti King, senior dietician at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, added to HealthDay. "Children learn by example, so if high-sodium foods and sugar-sweetened beverages are readily available in the house and consumed by the parents on a regular basis, [kids] are going to be more likely to consume those as well."
U.S. dietary guidelines recommend people should take in no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day, while the American Heart Association recommends an even lower amount, 1,500 milligrams. A recent AHA survey, however, found most Americans average 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, mostly from processed and restaurant foods.
The six biggest sodium contributors in Americans' diets are breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soup and sandwiches, the American Heart Association said in November.
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