Nutrition

Is it time to give salt the shake?

We love our salt, but new dietary guidelines say Americans should eat less.
We love our salt, but new dietary guidelines say Americans should eat less.
Posted Nov. 09, 2010, at 1:28 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 10, 2010, at 10:36 a.m.

How much is 1,500 mg of sodium?

If a federal advisory committee has its way, it will be the recommended daily amount adults should consume, down from 2,300, when the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 are updated in December. Put in real-food terms, it could mean: Cheerios with skim milk and orange juice for breakfast (about 300 mg), two pieces of whole-grain white Wonder Bread with peanut butter and plain yogurt (about 600 mg) and a healthful entree for dinner (about 600 mg).

Sound appetizing? Not so much. But if cutting sodium makes sense to you (and your doctor), there are easy ways to do so without sacrificing flavor.

The recommendation to gradually move toward consuming 1,500 mg of sodium a day (about two-thirds of a teaspoon’s worth of salt) is part of an effort to lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease. The average daily consumption has most recently been estimated at more than twice that: 3,436 mg to 3,712 mg per day. Consuming less sodium can lower an individual’s blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

That logic is widely embraced; the American Heart Association is among the many health organizations that agree that lowering sodium consumption would benefit public health. “Any change down would be a change in the right direction,” says Ralph Sacco, president of the American Heart Association.

But just how can you “change down” without resigning yourself to a bland diet? Here are some ideas:

  • Experiment with herbs, garlic and onions, and other low-sodium seasonings.
  • Ease up if you tend to add salt at the table. Though keep in mind that table and cooking salt account for only a small fraction, 5 to 10 percent, of our total sodium intake.
  • Consider eating more potassium-rich foods such as baked potatoes, bananas, cantaloupe and cooked dark green vegetables such as spinach. Potassium plays a big role in maintaining healthy blood pressure; you should consume about 4,700 mg daily.
  • Be aware that your desire for salt will likely diminish within a few weeks after you cut back. That taste is apparently not inborn in humans.
  • Cook more meals at home. This is the biggest change you can make. Substitute less-processed, more “whole” foods in place of processed, packaged foods and restaurant meals. About three-quarters of our sodium comes from such foods, a reality that suggests that much of the sodium-reduction work has to be done with food manufacturers and restaurants, not so much with individuals.

Not everyone agrees that cutting back salt will result in a healthier nation. Some experts, and, naturally, members of the salt industry, question whether there’s enough evidence linking sodium reduction to better cardiovascular health. In a critique of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report published in the October issue of the journal Nutrition, the authors — a group that includes Morton Satin, director of technical and regulatory affairs at the Alexandria, Va.-based Salt Institute — argue that the proposed sodium guideline, like others before it, isn’t sufficiently rooted in solid science to be implemented nationwide.

Others say that the more important contributor to the rise in cardiovascular disease is simply over-consumption of food, salty or not, and the obesity epidemic. That was the conclusion of a study co-written by Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and published in the November American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It found that our sodium consumption hasn’t changed much in recent decades, even as incidence of cardiovascular disease has continued to rise.

Here’s the thing about the Dietary Guidelines: They’re important, but not mandatory, and you’re free to follow or ignore them as you please. Their reissue every five years is a good opportunity, though, to review the way you eat and decide, maybe with your doctor, what you might do differently. Even if that means taking them with a tiny grain of salt.

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