by Talia Beechick
So maybe the gluten-free and paleo fads weren’t enough for you. Take a look at the low-sodium diet, the health world’s latest craze. Sodium is in nearly everything humans consume—so what’s the big deal? The American Heart Association (AHA) claims that if we cut our average sodium intake by over half and consume no more than 1,500 milligrams a day, there would be a 26 percent decrease in high blood pressure and a savings of more than $26 billion in health care costs.
The Effect Consuming Too Much Sodium Has on Our Body
According to the AHA, high blood pressure is a major risk factor of cardiovascular diseases—the leading cause of death across the globe. Sodium becomes a problem when it is consumed excessively and Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, explains that the body retains water when it ingests too much sodium. “This becomes an added burden on the heart and blood vessels,” she said. “This may lead to high blood pressure in some people.” She also added that excessive sodium levels can increase the risk of stroke, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease. The Diet and Weight Loss website explains that the kidneys are responsible for regulating our body’s sodium levels. Upon excessive salt intake, the kidneys are unable to filter enough sodium out, causing it to build up in the blood. Similar to the ways in which salt pulls water out of food, sodium extracts water from the cells in the body, increasing both the volume of blood and the strain on the heart and circulatory system.
Various scientific studies have been conducted to test the effects of sodium in recent years. In 2008, St. George’s Hospital Medical School published a study which examined the effects of long-term salt reduction on blood pressure. It was led by Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and the honorary consultant physician at St. George’s Hospital in London. Recognizing a lack of research on the long-term effects of modest salt-reduction, MacGregor and his team wished to delve deeper than merely examining the effects of salt loading and salt deprivation over a few short days.
What are the Long-Term Effects of Reducing Sodium Intake?
MacGregor and his team examined the long-term effects by gradually reducing salt intake over a period of four weeks in subjects with both elevated and normal blood pressure. Their study demonstrated that even a modest reduction in salt intake lowered the blood pressure in both types of subjects significantly, increasing the importance of sodium’s role in our health. These findings also encourage a modest sodium reduction to reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart failure. Finally, this study supports the current public health recommendations in many developed countries to reduce sodium intake from 10 grams a day to 5 grams a day, proving this will indeed reduce blood pressure. For more dramatic effects, MacGregor and his colleagues suggest reducing intake to 3 grams a day.
High Levels of Sodium Consumption Begins Early and Comes From a Variety of Foods
AHA claims that consuming sodium on a widespread and recurring basis begins early, with 97 percent of children and adolescents in America consuming too much salt. This consumption, in turn, increases their risk of cardiovascular diseases as they get older. It is no surprise, then, that Americans on average consume nearly 3,500 milligrams of sodium daily. This is over twice the AHA recommended 1,500 milligrams a day.
These high amounts of sodium come from a variety of sources. According to Johnson, “Americans get 75 percent of their sodium from processed and prepared foods.” She continued to break down the foods with the highest sodium contents, including bread and rolls, soups, cheese, lunchmeats, pizza and snack foods. AHA explains that these processed foods contain so much sodium not only for the taste, but also to bind ingredients, enhance color and give the food a firmer texture. Salt also can act as a preservative to protect against food-borne pathogens found in canned foods and meats which can cause a variety of illnesses.
How to Lower Sodium Intake
So what can we do to be more sodium-conscious and reduce our intake? The AHA website is filled with suggestions, from limiting the consumption of processed foods and portion sizes and substituting salt with fresh lemon juice on fish and veggies to cooking more at home to have greater control on your sodium intake. Just a quick reality check: that “pinch” of salt you add to your pasta, burger or other main dish is probably equal to about half a teaspoon—an astonishing 1,200 milligrams of sodium. AHA also encourages eating foods with large amounts of potassium which can counter the effects of sodium and potentially even lower blood pressure. Seeking low-sodium varieties in ready-made condiments such as salad dressings, dips and soy sauce is another easy way to reduce one’s intake. Soy sauce, astonishingly, contains 1,000 milligrams of sodium in 1 tablespoon, according to AHA.
The low-sodium diet has gained the support of doctors, nutritionists and scientists all over. Founded by MacGregor in 1996, Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH) is headed and supported by a variety of nutritionists, doctors and professors from varying hospitals and universities across London. The CASH website lists a wide range of goals CASH has as an organization, including educating the public on salt’s impact on their bodies, creating clearer labels on food items and working with food processors to lower the sodium content in their products. A few main achievements to date include reducing salt intake in the United Kingdom by 10 percent to save an estimated 6,000 lives each year as well as the creation of World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) in 2005. WASH has expanded to include members in 20 countries around the globe, raising awareness and encouraging others to reduce their salt intake for a healthier lifestyle.