Salt: Friend or Foe?

The average American consumes 15 pounds of salt per year.  That is the equivalent of 3 five pound bags of sugar.  Our bodies need salt to survive but how much salt is enough?

Every living cell in our body is bathed in a salt solution.  Our tears are salty, our blood is salty and our sweat is salty.

Chemical requirements of the human body demand that there is a constant concentration of salt in the blood.  Our bodies rely on electrolytes such as sodium and potassium to carry the electrical impulses that control our bodily functions.  Salt also helps to regulate blood pressure and fluid volume.  It aids in digestion by assisting in the absorption of food through intestinal walls.  Salt extracts excess acidity from brain cells and balances sugar levels in our blood.

A host of problems can crop up if you have a salt deficiency.  You may experience headaches, heart palpitations, nausea, weariness, fatigue, dizziness, muscle cramps and may even collapse.

But on the other hand a whole host of problems can occur if you are supplying your body with an overabundance of salt.  You can experience high blood pressure, potassium deficiency, kidney stones, cataract formation, liver disease and osteoporosis.

Salt intake is responsible for a substantial amount of hypertension.  65 million Americans have hypertension (high blood pressure).  45 million have “pre-hypertension”, that means they are right on the verge of high blood pressure.  High blood pressure is a systolic number of 140 or over or a diastolic number of 90 or over.  Hypertension is an important risk factor in heart attacks and strokes.  In a study done by Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (Cook et al, 2007) they confirmed that people who reduced their salt intake by 25%-30% had an equal reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease of 25%.

In 2001 the IU School of Medicine found that people who are “salt-sensitive” have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease if they have a diet high in salt.  A salt-sensitive person experiences elevated blood pressure when they are given a salt load.  Being salt-sensitive is a risk factor for hypertension but many salt —sensitive people do not have high blood pressure.  In salt sensitive people high dietary salt causes cardiovascular disease even if their blood pressure remains normal.

75% of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy.  Salt is found in almost all processed foods such as; breakfast cereal, soup, sauces, even refrigerator biscuits.  Restaurant food is also highly salted.  So just putting away the salt shaker on your table will not be enough.

In 2006 the American Medical Association called for a minimum 50% reduction in sodium in processed foods, fast foods and restaurant meals.  The AMA also asked the FDA to work harder to educate the public about health risks associated with a high sodium diet.  The AMA and The American Heart Association recommend that a healthy adult should not exceed 2300 milligrams of sodium per day.  That is about 1 tsp of table salt.

Below I have outlined product labels and what they mean so that we can start in the grocery store with the items we purchase to cut down on our salt usage.

If a food label says: This is what it means:
Unsalted, No Salt Added, Without Added Salt   No salt has been added during processing, even though salt is normally added to that food.
Reduced or Less Sodium 25% less sodium than normal
Lightly salted or Light in Sodium 50% less sodium than normal
Low Sodium 140 mg or less per serving
Very Low Sodium 35 mg or less per serving
Sodium Free or Salt-Free  5 mg or less per serving

You may also want to consider cutting back on processed food and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.  Cooking from scratch allows you to control the quantity of salt used.

Salt is necessary, our bodies require it, but just as too much sugar can throw our bodies out of balance so can too much salt.  Too much salt is never a good thing.


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