Shake the Salt Habit

Live Right Live Well: Diet

Shake the Salt Habit

By Michael Castleman for Live Right Live Well

Shake the Salt Habit

Americans eat too much salt -- and it’s killing us. Why? Salt is high in sodium. Sodium increases your risk of high blood pressure, which in turn raises your risk of heart attack and stroke. If we all cut just 1 gram of salt from our daily diet -- that’s one frozen pizza or TV dinner, one serving of french fries, or five handfuls of potato chips -- the nation would suffer 250,000 fewer new cases of heart disease and 200,000 fewer heart disease deaths over a decade, according to a recent study led by Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, M.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concurs. The average American consumes 3,436 milligrams of sodium per day. But according to a recent CDC report, no one should consume more than 2,300 mg per day. In fact, 69 percent of people should be limiting their sodium to under 1,500 mg per day -- the amount found in about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt and less than half of what the average American consumes.

Should you be on a low-sodium diet? The answer is yes, if you ...

  • are over 40 years of age (because heart disease and stroke usually strike older people).
  • have high blood pressure (because salt aggravates it).
  • are African-American (because African-Americans are at greater risk of high blood pressure than are other racial groups).

Surprisingly, when it comes to sodium, what comes out of the salt shaker is not the real problem. Salt added during cooking and eating accounts for only 11 percent of the nation’s sodium intake. The real problem is packaged, processed and restaurant food. These foods contain more than 75 percent of the sodium Americans consume. Over the past 30 years, Americans have been cooking less, buying more packaged and processed foods, and eating out more. As a result, salt consumption has increased by 50 percent -- and rates of high blood pressure have risen along with it.

To cut down on sodium:

  • Skip the salt when cooking -- use spices and herbs instead. At the table, use the pepper mill or fresh lemon juice instead of the salt shaker.
  • Choose low- or reduced-sodium versions of packaged foods and condiments.
  • Limit smoked or cured foods (such as deli meats, bacon and ham) and foods packed in brine (such as pickles and olives).
  • Rinse canned foods, such as tuna and beans, to wash away some of the sodium.
  • Whenever you feel like snacking on chips, reach for a piece of fruit, carrot sticks or other raw veggie.
  • Instead of fries, order a baked potato.
  • Instead of a TV dinner, have a green salad, a piece of fruit and a bagel with peanut butter or cheese.
  • Instead of frozen pizza, make a big pot of hearty bean and vegetable soup. Divide it into individual servings and freeze. Using a microwave, you can eat in minutes.
  • When eating out, ask that your food be prepared without salt.

And don’t forget to read food labels. Look for the word “sodium”: sodium chloride, monosodium glutamate, disodium phosphate, sodium benzoate, etc. Then check the nutrition information and add up the amounts you eat in a day. If you’re like most Americans, you’ll be surprised.

“Most Americans need to reduce their salt intake,” says Darwin R. Labarthe, M.D., director of the CDC division for heart disease and stroke prevention. For the sake of your health, “read food labels, understand how much salt you’re consuming and consume less.”

Michael Castleman has been called "one of the nation's leading health writers" (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web. Michael is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.

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