Easy on the Salt

Posted Feb. 23, 2010, at 4:57 p.m.

A new health hazard has been added to smoking, alcohol, other drugs, too much sugar, high cholesterol and obesity: salt. Americans eat too much of it, leading to increased heart disease, stroke and hypertension.

A recent warning came in an article published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine. Even a modest one-sixth-teaspoon reduction in daily salt intake would substantially reduce heart attacks, strokes and hardening of the arteries, as well as medical costs, according to the authors led by Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco. A daily half-teaspoon reduction would be even better

Besides urging individual Americans to eat less salt, the authors called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to join a national warning. The FDA designates salt as a food additive that is “generally regarded as safe.” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asked restaurants to cut the salt in their menus by 25 percent over the next five years.

Persuading individual Americans to reduce their salt intake gets a bit complicated. There’s a lot more to it than just halting the habit of shaking the salt cellar on everything at each meal as well as popcorn, snacks and even a glass of beer.

The average American man consumes almost 2 teaspoons of salt a day, nearly twice the recommended maximum. Most of that total comes in purchased food. Commercial soups and many other canned foods and prepared meals are especially high in salt content.

Restaurant meals were checked last year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to The New York Times. It found that many popular restaurant meals contained nearly double what a healthy person should consume in a day.

Part of the problem is that salt tastes so good. It is the world’s oldest condiment, and the body needs it. It is best to reduce salt gradually. Herbs and flavorings can keep food tasty, and you can get used to eating less salt.

But be careful not to overdo it. Some salt is essential to good health. Doctors sometimes recommend adding salt if you sweat heavily or drink lots of water.

As with so much else, moderation is the watchword.

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