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Nutrition and Weight Control Special Report

The Wisdom of Cutting Back on Salt

Americans love salt. On average, we consume twice the recommended daily maximum intake of 2,300 mg of sodium each day, which is 10 to 20 times what is needed for normal body function. Our bodies do need some salt -- but not that much. Here’s what you should know.

Excessive sodium intake causes constriction of small arteries throughout the body and retention of water, which increases the volume of blood to your arteries and veins. These effects can raise blood pressure and cause hypertension, the most important risk factor for a stroke.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is also a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States. Cardiovascular disease, the umbrella term for all diseases of the heart and blood vessels including heart disease, hypertension, and stroke, claims the lives of about 850,000 people yearly. Hypertension also contributes to heart failure, kidney disease, and vision loss. About 73 million American adults have hypertension, defined as a systolic blood pressure of 140 mm Hg or higher and/or a diastolic blood pressure of 90 mm Hg or more.

Most individuals can benefit from reducing the sodium content of their diet. If you already have high blood pressure and are taking medication for it, cutting down on salt can help by making drug therapy more effective. Consuming less salt can reduce medication doses and even replace medication as a way to reduce high blood pressure.

If your blood pressure is normal, it's still worth cutting down on salt, because it may help reduce your chances of developing high blood pressure later in life. Even if you're 55 years old and have normal blood pressure, you still have a 90% chance of developing hypertension sometime later in life. And even if your blood pressure is normal, excess salt can increase the size and thickness of your heart and the stiffness of your arteries, setting the stage for heart disease.

When it comes to cutting sodium, putting away the salt shaker is hardly enough. The vast majority of salt we eat -- 80% -- comes from foods that are processed or served in restaurants. Only 10% of salt is added during home cooking or at the table. The remaining 10% of salt occurs naturally in foods. Try taking these steps to cut out some of the salt in your diet:

  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables more often. They are naturally low in sodium and are good sources of potassium, which helps blunt the blood pressure-raising effects of sodium.
  • Choose processed and packaged foods with less sodium. Read labels carefully, since sodium is not always where you think. For example, salad dressings, cheese, breakfast cereals, store-bought cookies and breads, mayonnaise, and canned beans and vegetables can contain substantial amounts of sodium.
  • When cooking at home, skip the salt and instead flavor your food with pepper, herbs, spices, vinegar, wine, garlic, onion, lemon, and low-salt versions of mustard, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce. Choose low- or reduced sodium broths and soups.
  • When dining out, ask the server to have your meal prepared without added salt. And of course, limit your consumption of fast foods and ethnic foods that are high in salt.

And finally: OJ Every Day -- Dietary potassium can help reduce the damage caused by sodium by dilating arteries and reducing blood pressure. The National Academy of Sciences advises adults to consume at least 4.7 g of potassium per day to lower the risk of hypertension, kidney stones, and bone loss. However, most people get about half that amount.

To add more potassium to your diet, reach for these potassium rich foods: sweet potatoes, white potatoes, beet greens, soybeans, bananas, spinach, tomato juice, tomato sauce, orange juice, dried peaches, stewed prunes, dried apricots, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, lentils, and kidney beans. An 8-oz glass of orange juice has 450 mg of potassium; a medium banana has about 422 mg.

Posted in Nutrition and Weight Control on January 27, 2010

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