Be good to your heart, reduce your salt intake

The recommended sodium intake for a healthy adult is no more than 2,300 milligrams a day. You probably already knew that. For years, doctors and public health experts have been warning Americans that too much salt in the diet increases the risk of hypertension and stroke.

If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your doctor probably told you to trim another 500 milligrams off of that allowance. And since that time you’ve avoided the salt shaker as if it contained hazardous materials.

No matter how hard you try, though, your efforts to limit your sodium intake are likely to have limited results because 80 percent of the salt in your diet is beyond your control–added to the food before you buy it.

That’s why a National Salt Initiative has been established. The purpose of the Initiative is to reduce salt consumption of Americans by 20 percent over a five-year period by attacking the source, those who produce the food. The Initiative is a public-private effort that includes more than 45 cities, states and health organizations.

It’s well established that sodium increases blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a silent killer–a major risk factor for stroke, heart attack and kidney disease. Salt, 40 percent sodium by weight, is the principal source of sodium in the American diet.

Some individuals are salt sensitive and more vulnerable than others, but even persons with normal blood pressure benefit from lower levels of sodium. And apart from the effect on blood pressure, lower sodium intake is associated with a reduced risk of stroke and heart attack.


Everyone Benefits

Americans today consume an average of 9 to 12 grams of salt daily, adding up to 3,600 to 4,800 milligrams of sodium. Lowering salt intake by three grams a day would result in 32,000 fewer strokes, 44,000 fewer heart attacks and a $24 million savings in health care costs, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine [2010]. Another 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine calculated a $32 billion cost reduction and more than a million lives saved from a 10 percent lower average intake of sodium.

While not everyone who is advised by a doctor to cut back on salt really tries, many do make a conscientious effort. But only six percent of the salt we eat comes from the shaker while another five percent is added by the cook. The rest comes mostly from processed foods, convenience foods and restaurant meals.

One commonly recommended approach to cutting sodium intake is to eat at home and reduce your use of processed foods. With busy schedules that’s not always possible, and even when it is, the process is difficult.

Bacon, ham and sausage are clearly high in sodium, but deli meat, even chicken and turkey, are cured in salt. The sodium level is also relatively high in cold cereals, cheese and yogurt.

A slice of whole grain bread contains about 260 milligrams of sodium. Eat a sandwich a day, put some deli meat and cheese inside and you’re well on your way to meeting your daily quota, even without the salty chips that you try so hard to avoid.

Fast food restaurants and food producers often add extra salt to improve the palatability of low-cost or low-fat food items. Salt is added to many meat products, including turkey and chicken, because it binds to water, thereby increasing weight.

Ever wonder why the popcorn is extra salty at the movie theater or ball game? It’s no coincidence that the largest soft drink companies are also in the business of producing salty snacks–to keep the thirst level appropriately high.

Food producers can do better, and the National Salt Initiative is designed to elicit gradual, voluntary changes that will eventually make a major difference in the nation’s health and health care costs.

Companies who join will be asked to reduce salt in processed and restaurant food by 25 percent, but since this will come gradually over a five-year period, consumers will not notice the difference. As anyone who has cut back on salt realizes, the taste for salt is habituating: the more you eat, the more you want...and vice versa.

For those worried about the “freedom” to eat salty foods, there will still be many choices for them. A company that manufactures crackers, for example, may keep at least one high-salt product line as long as overall sales in the category meet the lower target.

The Initiative includes mechanisms for monitoring the sodium in the food supply and participants’ progress toward meeting their goals. Urine analysis will also be used to monitor actual salt intake of individuals.

Many food giants such as Kraft, Heinz and Starbucks, have committed to the project.

The salt reduction approach is one that has worked well in other countries such as Japan, Finland and the United Kingdom. Australia, Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands have also started similar initiatives.

Japan had one of the highest stroke rates in the world in 1960 when the government started its salt reduction efforts. As daily salt intake was reduced by 1.5 to 4 grams daily, depending on the area of the country, the country saw an 80 percent decline in stroke deaths, despite increases in fat intake, smoking, alcohol use and obesity.

Finland also worked closely with the food industry, reducing salt intake by 33 percent over the next 30 years and bringing about a 75 to 80 percent reduction in deaths from strokes and coronary heart disease. Life expectancy in Finland is now five to six years longer than it was before its salt reduction initiative was started.

Our ancient ancestors lived with very little salt until the discovery that the little white granules could be used to cure food. With advances in refrigeration, salt curing is no longer necessary, although most cooks feel that a little bit of salt is effective in intensifying flavors. A little bit goes a long way, though, and significant salt reduction can go a long way toward saving lives without sacrificing the pleasures of eating.

According to recent estimates, nearly one in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, but because there are no symptoms, nearly one-third of these people don't know they have it. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure or kidney failure. This is why high blood pressure is often called the "silent killer." The only way to tell if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure checked. Visit your healthcare provider to ensure your blood pressure is within normal limits.

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The content on this site is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.