You and salt: not so perfect together
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Since nearly 70 percent of adult Americans have risk factors that warrant their reducing the amount of sodium they consume each day, the odds are high that you should pay attention to the following information and heed its advice. And since the national average daily sodium intake is already much higher than what’s recommended even for the 30 percent of people who don’t have risk factors, the odds are overwhelming that you are currently eating too much salt every day; the only question being how much you need to cut back?
First let’s look at the 70 percent of adults who have risk factors. The risk factors are:
High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) -31 percent of adults
All people over age 40 - 34 percent of adults
All black Americans – 4 percent of adults
The people in these groups either have high blood pressure or are at risk for developing it. In turn, high blood pressure increases the risk for heart disease and stroke, the number 1 and number 3 leading causes of death in the United States. And greater consumption of sodium increases the risk for high blood pressure. In fact, salt consumption and blood pressure go hand in hand.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that American adults should consume no more than 2,300 mg/day of sodium (that’s the equivalent of about one teaspoon of table salt). But the national average for sodium consumption at that time was 3,436 mg/day, meaning that on average everyone was consuming too much sodium. Moreover, the same recommendations also called for consumption of no more than 1,500 mg/day of sodium for people in the three high risk groups noted above. Let’s look at this again:
National average: 3,436 mg/day
Upper limit for the 30%not at risk: 2,300 mg/day
Upper limit for the 70%at risk: 1,500 mg/day
Most people get their excessive sodium from three main sources:
Processed and packaged foods
Restaurant and fast foods
Adding extra salt in cooking and at the table
It’s hard to do anything about the salt in foods that you eat in restaurants but if you do eat out a lot, you will need to pay particular attention to the other sources of sodium in your diet that you can control. And when you do eat out, you definitely should not add extra salt to the food, it’s already loaded with it. In fact, you should try your best to gradually reduce, and eventually eliminate all added salt, especially at the table. Use it sparingly in cooking. Turns out that the taste for salt is purely a habit: the more you eat the more you want. The more you use the more that food without salt tastes bland. But the opposite is also true. Once you cut back your taste for salt will decrease to the point where added salt will make food taste noticeably too salty.
Now for the hard part. Processed and packaged foods are notoriously loaded with salt. I’m talking about nearly everything you buy that isn’t fresh, like fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats (fresh dairy products are generally high in sodium). But, you can look at labels and see how much salt is there. And believe me, if you do look at labels you’ll be in for a shock. Now, just to make things even more complicated than they already are, the labels are all misleading. That’s right. When you look at the sodium content on the label it tells you two things: the amount of sodium in mg per serving, which is not misleading, and the calculated percent of the recommended daily intake amount, which is doubly misleading. First of all it’s misleading because the value used in the calculation is 2,400 mg/day when the currently recommended value is only 2,300 mg/day. Ok, that’s not too bad. But, if you remember our little table above, 2,300 mg/day is only for the 30 percent of people not at risk. If you’re one of the 70 percent of people at risk for high blood pressure, your recommended daily intake is only 1,500 mg/day so the calculated percentage is completely wrong for you.
Of course no one is going to count up mg of sodium all day. So my recommendation is simply this: assume you are at risk, assume you eat too much salt every day and just try to cut back whenever and wherever you can. As always, the basic recommendation is to eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in highly processed and refined packaged foods. Cut back on the amount of salt you add in cooking and don’t add any extra at the table. Don’t even put out a salt shaker on your table – just keep it in the cupboard. And when guests ask where the salt is, just say, “I’m cutting back for health reasons, maybe you should too.”
If you want more information about cutting back on sodium, the DASH Diet Eating Plan website has it all. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and the diet is recommended by the American Heart Association and many other medical groups.
If you have experience with cutting back on sodium consumption, please leave a comment below so that others can learn from you. We look forward to hearing from you.
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