We've all been at the dining table and had someone ask us to “pass the salt.” Then someone else chimes in to say, “You know too much salt isn't good for you.” And the next reply is “Well, a little salt won’t hurt me…”as they dust their food with salt. But is that just wishful thinking?
Actually, both perspectives bear some truth. While sodium is essential for regulating fluid and blood volume in our bodies and is therefore, necessary, most of us have way too much sodium in our diet. High amounts of sodium can lead to hypertension, also known as high blood pressure.
Here's why. Sodium attracts water. When there is too much sodium in the body, the sodium pulls water into the bloodstream and increases the pressure flowing within our arteries. This is the basis for high blood pressure, a common disease within the African American community.
According to the American Heart Association, African Americans have the highest prevalence of high blood pressure of any racial and ethnic group in the world. We are more likely to be diagnosed with this disease at a younger age and to develop complications such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness. High blood pressure is known as a “silent killer” because often there are no symptoms.
Ninety percent of Americans eat more sodium than is recommended for a healthy diet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Worldwide, adults eat almost double the daily recommendation of sodium according to a recent study presented this month at the American Heart Association’s 2013 Scientific Sessions.
Contrary to popular understanding, the main culprit of our high sodium intake is not inside the saltshaker. Only about 10% of the sodium we have in our diet comes from the salt added at the dinner table or while cooking. According to a CDC Vital Signs Report, about 65% of sodium consumed comes from food bought in supermarkets, corner stores, and convenience stores and about 25% comes from restaurants. More than 40% of sodium comes from the following ten types of foods: breads and rolls; cold cuts and cured meats such as deli or packaged ham or turkey; pizza; fresh and processed poultry; soups; sandwiches such as cheeseburgers; cheese; pasta dishes; meat-mixed dishes such as meatloaf with tomato sauce; and snacks such as chips, pretzels, and popcorn.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. 2,300 milligrams is almost equal to one teaspoon of table salt. However, for African Americans, those with high blood pressure, or people that are middle-aged and older, the daily recommendation drops to less than 1500 milligrams per day. This is more than half of the adults in the U.S.
Some major food companies in the U.S. have already agreed to reduce the amount of sodium placed in their packaged and restaurant foods by joining The National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), a partnership of more than 90 state and local health departments and national health organizations who set voluntary targets for salt levels.
It can be difficult to reduce sodium in our diets especially when certain foods appear as if they are healthy or are marketed as healthy products. Here are some steps that you make to help reduce the amount of sodium in your diet:
1) Look for products marked ‘low’ or ‘no-added’ sodium;
2) Read the nutrition labels on packages. Remember to check the serving size and the number of servings per container;
3) Compare the same type of food product of different brands. Some brands contain less sodium as compared to others;
4) Ask your grocer or store owner to stock more low sodium products. Owners would likely be willing to do so if customers buy the products;
5) If able, prepare more meals at home;
6) Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables – frozen fruits without sauce are fine as well;
7) If you are cooking, cut down the amount of salt required for your recipes by half.
So even though the salt shaker may not be the leading cause of our over-consumption of sodium, I recommended that you still hold off on passing the salt.
Dr. Aletha Maybank is a Board Certified physician in both Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrAlethaMaybank or visit her blog at www.oncallinthecity.com