Even though salt may be less harmful than once thought — according to recent studies — that doesn’t mean you can dip your French fries in it. Sorry. Watching your salt intake is still important despite the ongoing debate.
About half of Americans with high blood pressure are sodium sensitive, which can lead to fluid retention and high blood pressure. It’s particularly common among African Americans and people over age 65, says cardiologist Craig Walsh, MD, of the Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic in Portland, OR.
Cutting salt in your diet can result in a range of benefits, from a small to “dramatic” improvement in your blood pressure, depending on your level of salt sensitivity, Walsh adds.
You do need some salt. Composed of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride, salt helps your body retain needed water, and we can be up to 75 percent H2O. It also balances the pH (acids and bases) in your blood and is the medium for electrical charges in the nerves that control your muscles. The sodium, by the way, is doing all the work.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you consume a maximum of 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. This amount, the AHA believes, strikes a balance between maintaining cardiovascular health and providing your body with enough to support those necessary metabolic functions.
University of Chicago cardiologist Matt Sorrentino, MD, recommends you follow the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) developed by research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The pillars of that diet include relatively low sodium (1 teaspoon or less than 2,400 milligrams per day). Along with meals high in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products, this low-salt diet can be as effective as medication for some people with mild hypertension, says a Consumer Reports examination.
The DASH diet is particularly prudent if you are prone to salt-sensitive hypertension, characterized by a sudden jump in blood pressure.
So why the new controversy over salt and its influence on heart disease risk? It began to pick up speed in 2013 with a report from a prestigious group of experts. They concluded that there was no reason for you to limit sodium consumption to very low levels recommended in national dietary guidelines.
At the time, the expert committee sponsored by the Institute of Medicine said there was no evidence for you to go below 2,300 milligrams of salt per day. That is, no evidence as in an “absence of data.”
Many influential organizations, including the AHA, haven’t budged from their position that everyone, not just those who are sodium sensitive, should try to reduce their sodium level to 1,500 milligrams a day.
“One estimate suggested that if the U.S. population moved to an average intake of 1,500 mg/day sodium from its current level, it could result in a 25.6 percent overall decrease in blood pressure…,” the AHA says. “Another estimate projected that achieving this goal would reduce deaths from (cardiovascular disease) by anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 1.2 million over the next 10 years.”
While you make up your own mind, which should include a conversation with your doctor, consider ways to reduce your salt intake anyway because it can’t hurt, and it may well help.
First, go fresh as opposed to packaged when it comes to food choices. That’s the easiest way to avoid added salt, which is most of our salt intake. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a particularly good choice.
You can cut a lot of salt from your diet by avoiding processed foods, particularly frozen meals that are high in salt – and sugar. And, consciously shop for low-salt foods. Lack of salt doesn’t necessarily mean lack of flavor. And keep in mind that some foods don’t taste salty but still have high salt content.
Cook with less salt, and try substituting black pepper as seasoning instead. Fresh herbs and spices can also liven up home-cooked meals without salt. With vegetables, in particular, you can bring out their flavor by baking or roasting them. Tomatoes and garlic can add flavor to any sauce.
When eating out, ask your server about foods prepared without added salt and order those. More restaurants may add low-salt meals to their menus if more people demand it.
Restaurant foods that typically are higher in salt include pizza, pasta dishes, burgers, sandwiches, breakfasts, and salads slathered with dressings that are high in salt and fat. Just ask for the dressing on the side, and use it less enthusiastically.
Always read food labels. Although they can be confusing, it’s easy enough to identify the salt content. And compare various brands of the same food to find the one with the lowest sodium level.
Lowering your salt intake can be challenging. Remember that salty food is an acquired taste, the National Kidney Foundation says. It takes about six to eight weeks to get used to eating food with lower salt levels, “but once it’s done, it’s actually difficult to eat foods like potato chips because they taste way too salty,” the foundation says. Give it time and don’t get discouraged. Time flies.
April 16, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN