Want to prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and more? Cut the salt. According to a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, excess salt in the American diet contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and heart attacks. The projected benefit of cutting 3 grams of salt from our diets would do as much or more for reducing our risk of these diseases as reducing tobacco, obesity and cholesterol.
Everyone needs salt. Without salt we would not be able to keep fluid inside our blood cells or transmit signals from our brains to our nerves and muscles. From the beginning of time humans have recognized the value of salt. Ancient caravans carried salt across deserts to trade an ounce of salt for an ounce of gold. The word "salary" actually comes from the Roman word salarium, dating back to when Roman soldiers were paid in salt.
Salt, or sodium chloride, cannot be made by the body so we have to get sodium from our diet. The US Departments of Agriculture and Human Services recommend that about four grams of salt is all we need. Unfortunately, Americans love of salt far outweighs our need. The average American man consumes over 10 grams of salt every day. For the average woman it's over 7 grams. And it's not just a matter of not using your salt shaker—75 to 80 percent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods.
"A population-wide reduction in dietary salt of 3 grams per day is projected to reduce the annual number of new cases of coronary heart disease by 60,000 to 120,000, stroke by 32,000 to 66,000 and myocardial infarction by 54,000 to 99,000 and to reduce the annual number of deaths from any cause by 44,000 to 92,000."—New England Journal of Medicine
The reason salt reduction reduces these diseases is that it lowers blood pressure and lowering blood pressure reduces the risk for heart disease and stroke. Stroke and heart disease combined kill about 860,000 Americans every year. Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure and today in America there are over 100 million of us who have either hypertension or pre-hypertension.
Reducing salt intake by 3 grams per day would save as many lives as if we were able to treat every single person who has high blood pressure with medication. As we Americans ponder where we should be spending our healthcare dollars, consider that reducing our salt intake could save us up to $24 billion in healthcare costs every year.
Most natural foods contain salt, so eating a healthy diet will give you enough. You certainly want to cut back on the salt you add at the table or during food preparation, but you need to do more if you want to cut your intake by three grams. That's because most of that salt comes from salt that is already in the foods you buy. Here is what you need to know about processed foods:
"As we deliberate health care reform, let us not neglect this inexpensive, yet highly effective public health intervention for the prevention of disease."—New England Journal of Medicine.
Salt is an acquired taste and it can take a few months to get used to unsalted foods. Eventually, most people begin to appreciate the real taste of food that is no longer being masked by salt. Here are some salt-saving suggestions: