Don't Let Salt Sneak Up On You

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine adds important evidence to a larger recent discussion about how much sodium people should consume and what kind of impact that has on health, said American Heart Association President Elliott Antman, M.D



Excessive sodium consumption is having a dire impact on global health, killing about 1.65 million people every year, according to a new study.

The research published in the New England Journal of Medicine adds important evidence to a larger recent discussion about how much sodium people should consume and what kind of impact that has on health, said American Heart Association President Elliott Antman, M.D.

“We have new research indicating that the blood pressure effects of excess sodium can be directly related to cardiovascular disease risk,” said Antman, who is also a professor of medicine and Associate Dean for Clinical/ Translational Research at Harvard Medical School and a senior physician in the Cardiovascular Division of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “This is a staggering finding.”

According to the study, about 1 in 10 cardiovascular deaths can be attributed to sodium intake of greater than 2,000 milligrams per day. “This is a level exceeded by 99.2 percent of the world’s adults, on average,” Antman said. “In the U.S., almost 57,600 annual cardiovascular deaths are attributed to sodium intake at this level.”

“Excess dietary sodium intake exacts a tremendous toll on our societies and economies around the world,” Antman said. “Now is a time for action, not hesitation.”

Clarifying Sodium

What’s the Problem?

Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life. It’s regulated in the body by your kidneys, and it helps control your body’s fluid balance. It also helps send nerve impulses and affects muscle function.

It may be an essential nutrient, but if you’re like most Americans you’re probably getting way more sodium than your body needs or that’s good for your heart.

The American Heart Association recommends less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for ideal heart health, but most Americans consume more than twice that much. Most people consume about 3,400 milligrams a day.

When there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total volume of blood inside. With more blood flowing through, blood pressure increases. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose — the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it. Over time, high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of gunky plaque that can block blood flow. The added pressure also tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body.

 

Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, eating less sodium can help blunt the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age, and reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and even headaches. The extra water in your body can also lead to bloating and weight gain.

If someone is sensitive to salt, this means increasing or decreasing their salt intake has a greater effect on their blood pressure (compared to someone who is not sensitive to salt). The effects of salt and sodium on blood pressure tend to be greater in blacks, people over 50, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. That’s about half the American population.

 

“Excess dietary sodium intake exacts a tremendous toll on our societies and economies around the world. Now is a time for action, not hesitation” — American Heart Association President Elliott Antman, M.D.

Common Misconception

The biggest contributor to our sodium consumption is not the salt shaker. Approximately 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from sodium added to processed foods and restaurant foods. This makes it hard for people to choose foods with less sodium and to limit how much sodium they are eating because it is already added to their food before they buy it.

That’s just one of several good reasons to make reading nutrition labels a habit. Before you buy that frozen dinner or pizza, that canned soup or that boxed stovetop meal mix, take a good look at the amount of sodium per serving and decide if it’s really worth that much of your daily sodium budget.

Sodium Content on Nutrition Labels

You can find the amount of sodium in packaged food by looking at the Nutrition Facts label. The amount of sodium per serving is listed in milligrams. The sodium content of packaged and prepared foods can vary widely. Compare the sodium content of similar products and choose the one with the lowest amount of sodium you can find.


Understanding sodium-related terms on food packages:

SODIUM-FREE: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving and contains no sodium chloride

VERY LOW SODIUM: 35 milligrams or less per serving

LOW-SODIUM: 140 milligrams or less per serving

REDUCED (or less) SODIUM: At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level

LIGHT (for sodium-reduced products): If the food is “low calorie” and “low fat” and sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving

LIGHT IN SODIUM: If sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving

Food labels cannot claim a product is “healthy” if it has more than 480 mg of sodium per labeled serving (for individual foods) or more than 600 mg of sodium per labeled serving for meals/main dishes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A key point is that different brands and restaurant versions of the same kinds of foods can vary widely in sodium content. Compare nutrition labels and choose products with the lowest amount of sodium per serving. You can also look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark at grocery stores and some restaurants to find foods that can be part of an overall healthy diet.

You can also read the ingredient list to identify sources of sodium in your food. Watch for the words “soda” (referring to sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda) and “sodium” (including sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, monosodium glutamate [MSG] and sodium benzoate).

Once you start to recognize these terms, you’ll see that there is sodium in many foods – even those that don’t taste very salty.


Salt and Sodium

Common table salt is sodium chloride, which is approximately 40 percent sodium by weight. About 90 percent of Americans’ sodium intake comes from salt, whether in processed food or added at the table. Understanding just how much sodium is in salt can help you take measures to control how much you’re taking in.

Here are the approximate amounts of sodium, in milligrams, in a given amount of table salt:

¼ teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium

½ teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium

¾ teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium

1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium

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