You start the day with a bagel topped with flavored cream cheese. For lunch, you hit a sandwich chain and grab a ham sandwich and a bag of chips. At 3 p.m., you choose a snack from the office vending machine. Then at dinner, you sprinkle some salt and pepper on the chicken you’re about to grill, and then add a few extra shakes from the salt shaker before you start eating.
The end result? If you’re like most Americans, by the end of a typical day, you have taken in far more salt than recommended. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 90 percent of adults consume more than the recommend 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. The average person consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, with some people consuming double, even triple that amount, a habit that doctors say is dangerous to one’s health. But before you toss your salt shaker and ban salt from your kitchen, it’s important to understand a few key facts.
Too Salty = Unhealthy? Not So Fast
The human body needs a certain amount of salt to function properly; by most estimates, the ideal range for salt intake is between 180-500 milligrams per day to keep organs functioning. However, because salty is one of the five tastes distinguishable to human taste buds (along with sweet, sour, bitter and savory), in order for food to be palatable, it often needs a bit of salt to avoid seeming tasteless or bland. The problem, though, is that the American palate has become over-accustomed to salty foods. Some have even argued that Americans are addicted to salt.
Some studies indicate that ingesting too much salt has harmful effects on the body. The most common effect is elevated blood pressure, which contributes to heart attack, stroke and angina. However, what most people don’t realize it that it’s not only the amount of salt in your diet that harms your health but the type of salt. There are two major types of salt: Naturally occurring salt, and the heavily refined, processed type that is common in salt shakers and processed foods. In short, most of us eat too little natural salt and too much of the processed type.
It’s this processed salt problem that has some doctors concerned — and scientists questioning the CDC salt recommendations. According to several large studies, there is little difference between people who maintain a low salt diet and those who don’t in terms of risk for heart disease. That’s not to say that some people haven’t seen any benefit to their blood pressure from reducing the salt in their diet; a low-sodium diet combined with medication is often effective at helping patients manage their heart disease.
However, there is more to the low-sodium equation than meets the eye. Scientists suggest that it may not be the salt itself that causes heart disease, but the combination of salt with other ingredients that’s the culprit. Processed foods high in salt are also often high in fructose, which also contributes to heart disease. In addition, people with a high risk of heart disease often have a low potassium intake, suggesting that consuming adequate potassium could help limit the effect of excess salt consumption.
Making Sense of the Recommendations
So what does all of this mean to you? In general, it’s best to follow your doctor’s advice, which is most likely to limit your salt intake. Even if salt isn’t the health bogeyman that it’s been made out to be, there really isn’t any health benefit to eating too much salt, especially if it comes in the form of over-processed foods lacking in nutrients. Again, the CDC recommends keeping salt consumption in the 1,500-2,300 milligram range each day.
You can gradually reduce your salt intake and improve your overall health by following these simple steps.
Replace processed salt with natural versions.
Avoid processed foods, including fast food.
Incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet
Experiment with other flavorings to enhance your food. Herbs, spices and gourmet vinegars can add flavor to your favorite dishes without the sodium.
Read labels to determine how much salt is contained in packaged foods. While some ingredient lists contain “salt,” many don’t. Learn all of the terms for added salt to avoid inadvertently consuming extra sodium.
Choose low or no sodium versions of the packaged foods you do buy, such as canned vegetables or beans. Rinse canned foods before you eat to remove some of the excess sodium.
Remove the salt shakers from the table altogether. If they must be there (such as when you’re eating out) taste your food before you add salt. It may not need the extra seasoning.
Salt is a vital part of any diet — after all, we need it to survive — but it’s important to be smart about intake. So while you probably don’t need to throw out your salt shaker, try using it a little less often. Your heart will thank you.