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Americans Eating Too Much of the "Spice of Life"?

The human body requires salt to live. It helps nerves conduct messages throughout the body, allows muscles to move us, and generally regulates fluids so we don’t become either bloated or dehydrated. In cooking, moderate amounts of salt helps to bring out flavors in food.

But we can definitely get too much of this good thing.

An Associated Press article on WRAL.com today reports that the U.S. government is advising half the population to drastically cut the amount of salt in their diets. The recommendation comes as part of the regular 5-year dietary guideline review by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services–the same folks who gave us the Food Pyramid.

Groups targeted for salt reform are those who are most at risk of having or developing salt-related high blood pressure. This includes:

  • All people age 51 and older
  • All African-Americans
  • All people with hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • All people with diabetes
  • All people with chronic kidney disease

The old recommendation was for everyone to limit salt—also called sodium-–intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, or about a teaspoon of table salt. That may sound like a lot, but consider that most people eat 3 times that much salt every day! It comes not only from the salt shaker, but most significantly from the salt already added to prepared and processed foods that we buy in grocery stores or from restaurants.

The new guidelines recommend that people in those high-risk groups limit their sodium intake to about HALF the current guidelines, or about half of a teaspoon of salt per day.

What’s Wrong With Salt?

According to an article posted by the prestigious Mayo Clinic:

Your kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in your body for optimal health. When your sodium levels are low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When sodium levels are high, your kidneys excrete the excess in urine.

But if for some reason your kidneys can’t eliminate enough sodium, the sodium starts to accumulate in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases. Increased blood volume makes your heart work harder to move more blood through your blood vessels, which increases pressure in your arteries. Such diseases as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis and chronic kidney disease can make it hard for your kidneys to keep sodium levels balanced.

Some people’s bodies are more sensitive to the effects of sodium than are others. If you’re sodium sensitive, you retain sodium more easily, leading to fluid retention and increased blood pressure. The extra sodium can even lead to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. [Sodium: How to Tame Your Salt Habit Now, by Mayo Clinic staff]

What Should You Do Now?

Most of us eat too much salt, and even if you are not currently a member of one of the target groups, you will be someday (yes, with luck we will all eventually be over age 51). Unless you are one of those rare individuals who has been told by your doctor that you should eat more salt (such as some people who have difficulty regulating their low blood pressure), you should plan to moderate the way you shop, cook, and eat.

According to the WRAL.com article, to reduce the risk of disease from high sodium intake, the guidelines say people should:

  • Read nutrition labels closely and buy items labeled low in sodium.
  • Use little or no salt when cooking or eating.
  • Consume more fresh or home-prepared foods and fewer processed foods, so they know exactly what they are eating.
  • Ask that salt not be added to foods at restaurants.
  • Gradually reduce sodium intake over time to get used to the taste.

It’s been said that our taste buds take about 3 weeks to get used to less salt. Stick it out that long, and food will start to taste “normal” again. Less sodium will feel like a chore initially, but before long, you won’t even miss the salt shaker at the table!

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