Many of us have had a long love affair with salt, but that may be about to change. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine urged the U.S. government to gradually reduce the maximum amount of sodium that food companies and restaurants can add to foods. Why? Excess sodium is linked to hypertension, heart attack, stroke, renal disease and decreased bone density.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between salt and sodium. Salt is made up of sodium chloride: 60 percent is sodium, the rest chloride. Both minerals are necessary for life, but things have gotten out of hand. According to the CDC, the average American ingests about 3,400 milligrams a day. The latest health organization recommendations range from 1,500 milligrams-which many dietitians feel is unrealistic-to 2,400 milligrams. Most nutrition experts estimate that about 75 percent comes from processed food, not the salt shaker.
Not all medical doctors agree that everyone needs to limit salt. But there is growing evidence that a significant number of people have a condition called salt sensitivity, an abnormal increase in blood pressure in response to increases in dietary sodium. Unfortunately, there is no simple test for this. According to research performed by Dr. Myron H. Weinberger, certain salt-sensitive people do not necessarily develop hypertension, but their long-term mortality rate is just as high as those who do.
Busy family lives often necessitate taking dietary shortcuts that are high in sodium: frozen meats, entrees and pizzas; rice and soup mixes; canned fish and soup; seasoning mixes and prepared spaghetti sauce. Hurrying in and out of drive-thrus and especially dining out at restaurants provides another huge dose. Some restaurant entrees have 2,000 milligrams or more in one order.
Do you need to be concerned about how much sodium your child ingests? Yes. A taste for salt is acquired, and salt-loving children grow up to be adults who eat a salty diet. A 2001 report said that by age 7-9, 68 percent of children ate too much sodium. Just like adults, some kids are salt sensitive. And salty foods are often high in fat and calories. Two years ago, a study published in the journal Hypertension found that the more salty food children ate, the more sugary sodas they drank to wash it down.
It's not easy for food companies to simply drop the salt due to the many roles it plays. For example, salt allows the proteins in milk to knit together to become cheese. Bread dough depends on sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate in order to rise.
Here are some tips to reduce the sodium in your family's diet:
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a nutritionist living in Naperville.
See more of Christine's stories here.