By Meg Walker
Matters of the heart are rarely simple. But one thing is clear: to lower your risk of heart disease and heart attack, cut back on salt. Americans — from teens to adults — consume too much salt in their diet, putting them at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, according to recent studies.
Despite evidence linking salt intake to these serious cardiovascular issues, salt consumption among Americans has risen by 50 percent and blood pressure has risen by nearly the same amount since the 1970s, according to the American Heart Association.
A series of recent studies from academic researchers and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent nonprofit organization that is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, have highlighted the poor outcomes of a salty diet, and urged Americans to shake the salt habit to improve their own health, and health of the U.S. population.
"A very modest decrease in the amount of salt — hardly detectable in the taste of food — can have dramatic health benefits for the U.S.," said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, Ph.D, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California San Francisco, and lead author of two recent studies on dietary reductions in salt.
If Americans cut their daily salt intake by 3 grams, or half a teaspoon, nearly 100,000 heart attacks and 92,000 deaths could be prevented yearly, adding up to a savings of about $24 billion in healthcare costs annually, according to a study issued in January 2010 by a team including UCSF's Bibbins-Domingo, and researchers from Stanford University Medical Center and Columbia University Medical Center.
Current guidelines set an upper limit of 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. But dietary guidelines and recommendations from the American Heart Association set a stricter limit of 1,500 mg daily for people with high blood pressure, middle-aged and older adults, and African Americans who are particularly sensitive to the effects of salt.
On average, Americans consume more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily, about 1.5 teaspoons of salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recommended maximum daily intake of sodium — the amount above which health problems appear — is 2,300 milligrams per day for adults, or the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon of salt. The recommended adequate intake of sodium — the amount the average healthy person needs each day — is 1,500 milligrams per day, and people over 50 need even less, according to IOM.
A second study conducted by Bibbins-Domingo released this month said teenagers eat more salt each day than any other age group. If they cut their salt intake by 3 grams or half a teaspoon in dietary salt from processed foods, they can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke in adulthood.
Teenagers consume more than 9 grams of salt (3,800 milligrams of sodium) daily, and most of that comes from processed foods, the study said. For teens, the biggest culprit of salt is pizza.
Adults also consume most of their dietary salt — or about 80 percent of their daily intake — from processed or prepared foods including cereals, breads and pastries.
Though salt may not present immediate risks for healthy teens, it is important for them to choose foods with less salt now, said James Beckerman, MD, a cardiologist with Providence Heart & Vascular Institute in Portland, Oregon, author of The Flex Diet, and MedHelp's weight loss and healthy lifestyle expert.
"If they consume a lot of salt today, they are more likely to consume a lot of salt tomorrow,'' said Dr. Beckerman, "and their dietary pattern could continue that way into adulthood.''
As people age, they are at risk of elevated blood pressure and people with high blood pressure are more sensitive to the effects of salt, Beckerman said.
"We have a lot of work to do,'' Beckerman said. "We can make an impact on how much salt we use in cooking, but one of our choices should be to eat less processed food.''
Beckerman said the message to reduce salt needs to be heard by parents.
"Teens eat a lot of fast food and pizza, but the majority of their meals comes through their parents," he said. "They help decide what's available for breakfast and lunch. We need to put out the message that a lower salt diet isn't just good for you, it's good for your kids."
The war on salt escalated again this year when the IOM issued a report in April calling on the federal Food and Drug Administration to use its regulatory powers to state that sodium above a certain level in supermarket and restaurant foods should be declared unsafe. The FDA acknowledged Americans eat too much salt, which can have a serious effect on health. It said it would continue to work with other federal agencies and the food industry on how to reduce sodium levels in the food supply.
Salt is an acquired taste, so Beckerman says that by cutting back on salt gradually, you won't notice it's missing.
To achieve a low salt diet:
Published: November 24, 2010