Salt makes food taste better. But we also know salt can be really harmful. It’s estimated that half of all heart attacks and two-thirds of strokes are caused by high blood pressure (1). Cutting your salt intake will prolong your life and possibly save you from having to take powerful, expensive drugs every day with possibly undesirable side effects. Everything I’ve read indicates that salt overconsumption is a major killer.
Salt increases the amount of fluid carried in your blood vessels, narrows them, and reduces their ability to carry beneficial substances to the cells (1). Your heart, kidneys, and brain are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon and the results are commonly heart attack, kidney disease, or stroke (2).
According to this New York Times article, 75% of the salt we ingest is from processed foods. And salt can be hidden in surprising places (see image below). Pretty much anything that comes in a wrapper is a major offender, as well as anything you consume from a restaurant. The top salty foods are bread, processed meats, cheese, salad dressings, and cakes/cookies/doughnuts (1). These foods are not all considered “salty.”
(Image: New York Times)
According to choosemyplate.gov, we should be consuming fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. According to mayoclinic.com, this is equivalent to a teaspoon of table salt. I took a photo of a teaspoon of salt and, as you can see, it looks like a heck of a lot! There is no way I would put this much salt on my food throughout the day if I controlled the salt usage. At the very least, this amount would be adequate to season my cooking during a day. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a terrific nutrition information outlet whose newsletter I subscribe to (and blogged about), says that average sodium intake is around 4,000 mg per day. Wow! Keep in mind that the body only needs about 180 mg of sodium per day.
You may have heard about a study that was released earlier in 2011 which reportedly minimized the danger of salt intake (3). The study has received a fair share of criticism from the Centers for Disease Control and the head of Harvard’s School of Public Health based on it’s questionable design (4, 5). Of course, the media jumped on the research report like bees on honey. The fact is that the study was flawed and should not affect your goal of moderate sodium consumption.
Why is there so much salt in processed foods? Because it makes bland, highly refined food more palatable. Salt also helps preserve processed foods – it helps the food be more stable on the shelf, where it needs to sit for days and weeks. Stable food is easier to make, store and sell because it minimizes waste and so it is relatively cheap. Fresh food spoils fairly quickly and is therefore less convenient. It’s also vastly, vastly more healthful. The desire for cheaper, more convenient food to accommodate our increasingly time and cash strapped lives increases the demand for this health-sapping food. The stress we experience further increases our desire for comforting foods, raising the demand further. Profit-driven corporations are more than happy to supply the object of our desire: fast, cheap calories.
- Cook at home more than you eat out. It’s almost impossible to stay within salt intake limits when you eat out. This is the main recommendation.
- When you eat out, try to go for whole, unprocessed foods.
- When you cook at home, be sure to actually cook and not just heat up something that was in a wrapper (e.g., a TV dinner).
- Know your enemy: the top salty offenders are bread, processed meats, cheese, salad dressings, and cakes/cookies/doughnuts (1)