Addiction to Sodium Causes Health Problems
First it was trans fats. Then it was calorie-laden fast foods. Now sodium is on the front line of the nutrition wars. Nine out 10 Americans eat too much it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health groups have embarked on campaigns to wean Americans from their alarming addiction to sodium. But are the food police just a bunch of killjoys who want to scrub all the taste out of food? Or are they genuinely on to something?
Salt and sodium, while often used interchangeably, are not one and the same. Salt’s official name is sodium chloride – 40 percent is sodium, and the rest is chloride. One half teaspoon of salt contains 1 gram of sodium. The fact is that salt is crucial for life, experts say, but too much ratchets up our blood pressure, which can makes us more prone to heart attacks and stroke. If we could cut sodium levels in half, 150,000 American lives a year might be save.
It has been a dietary staple for thousands of years, dating back to at least 6000 B.C. in china. Empires were built on the trade in salt, which served as a food preservative, especially for meat, before canning and artificial refrigeration were developed in the last two centuries.
Salt absorbs water, thereby increasing the volume of blood which, in turn, spikes blood pressure. And high blood pressure is as much of a contribution to heart disease and stroke as too much artery-clogging cholesterol is.
Worse yet, most Americans consume 3,466 milligrams of sodium a day, which is much more than the current recommended dose of 2,300 mg, or about one teaspoon. And for the more than two out of three adults who are ultrasensitive to salt and more prone to high blood pressure, which includes everyone over 40 and all African-Americans, daily salt intake shouldn’t exceed about 1,500 mg, according to the CDC.
But those flaks you sprinkle on salads and steaks aren’t the biggest offenders. The real culprits are salt-laden restaurant meals and processed foods; these account for about 77 percent of the average American’s sodium intake, which is why it’s so touch to kick the habit. It isn’t just a flavor enhancer: It helps create structure in bread, emulsifies the ingredients in bologna and American cheese, and encourages browning in baked goods.
Consider this: One ounce of Velveeta contains more than 400 mg of sodium, while a chicken pot pie clocks in at around 900 mg of sodium, according to figures compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit food safety watchdog group in Washington, D.C. And there are 900mg of sodium in a Big Mac. When the whole marketplace is loaded with salt, it’s hard to make substantial changes, especially if you eat out.
Yet even a modest reduction in salt intake can dramatically lower heart disease risk. A Harvard study showed that when people whittled the amount of sodium in their diet by about 30 percent, it cut their heart disease and stroke risks by about 25 percent. And the regimen wasn’t drastic. These people ate normal diets, but we taught them how to look out for hidden salt and avoid it. What was interesting is that when they followed up 10 years after the initial phase of the study, the people on the special diet had acquired a taste for low-sodium foods and continued to shun saltier options.
There are some hopeful signs that are gaining traction. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration is familiar with the dangers of too much salt. Also, the prestigious Institute of Medicine issued a comprehensive study earlier this year that proposed changes in dietary guidelines and called on the FDA to regulate the amount of salt added to foods to help Americans cut their sodium intake. Some food companies, such as Kraft, have sunk millions into research on salt substitutes, and others are making a concerted effort to trim salt in processed foods so more of our favorite edibles, from spaghetti sauce to soup, now come in low-sodium or salt-free versions.
In England, a campaign to trim sodium in foods has helped reduce salt consumption by around 10 percent, saving an estimated 6,000 lives a year, and health officials are aiming for an additional 30 percent reduction. A number of British companies have even begun using a “traffic light” system on packaging labels to give customers an easy visual cue for gauging the salt content of a product. A green light indicates low salt content, and a red one tells consumers that levels are high.
Manufacturers changed the formulation of their products because they didn’t want to have a red light, and if they made it happen there, they should certainly be able to find a way to do it her.
How to start slashing salt now!
• Eyeball labels of processed foods and select ones that are the lowest in sodium – or better yet, avoid something canned or processed. Also be wary of condiments, pickles, ham, bacon, cold cuts, olives, and broth.
• Look for products labeled “sodium-free” or ones that have less than 100 mg per serving.
• Use salt sparingly on your food.
• Make recipes from scratch so you can control the amount of salt in your diet.
• When cooking, use spices other than salt. Basil, thyme, garlic, oregano, and pepper are flavorful substitutes.
• Avoid salty snacks, like pretzels or potato chips. Reach for nourishing treats instead, such as fruits and vegetables.
• When eating out, ask to have your meal prepared without any added salt. Most restaurants will be happy to oblige. Ask your server which items have the least amount of sodium. Skip the salad dressing, and stick with oil and vinegar.