Salt: The Silent Killer

040713 Salt BW WEB2

This week, 3 studies involving hundreds of thousands of patients were published in the prestigious British Medical Journal. All 3 studies showed the same thing, our excessive salt intake is making us sick and killing us early.

A recent study by Harvard Professor and former colleague of mine at Stanford University, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, concluded that 2.3 million deaths worldwide could be prevented each year if we simply reduced our salt intake[i].

According to the American Heart Association, about half of all American adults have high blood pressure[ii]. While genes and lack of physical activity certainly play a role in causing high blood pressure, one of the most important causes is too much salt in the diet.

High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, strokes, dementia, blindness, kidney failure, and many other problems. Even scarier is that too much salt triggers an inflammatory reaction throughout the body and can increase your risk of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis or arthritis[iii].

Each day when I meet with patients and tell them that they need to cut their salt intake to control their blood pressure, I always hear the same response—“but doctor, I never add salt to my food.”

What most people do not realize is that 80% of the salt or sodium we eat each day comes from companies that add unnecessary salt to processed foods. Yes, those processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, sausage, deli meats), soups, salad dressings, pizza, processed snack foods, canned foods, processed bakery items including bread, is causing us to overdose on salt as a society.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we eat less than 1,500 mg of salt (sodium) each day. While this is an aggressive goal it is certainly doable. 

So what can we do to avoid salt and improve our health? To help achieve the AHA goal I suggest the following 3 things for my patients:

  1. Read the Labels
    Salt or sodium is everywhere and in the most surprising locations.  We have to read the label on everything we eat. If you don’t read the labels you will never be able to avoid sodium!

  2. Avoid the Center Aisles of the Supermarkets
    Yes, the center aisles of the grocery stores are where you can find all of the processed foods. If you want to avoid the salt overdose of the American food culture you need to stay on the edges of the supermarkets where you can find the fresh foods.

  3. Eat Fruits and Vegetables with Every Meal
    While salt dramatically increases our blood pressure causing a myriad of problems fruits and vegetables have plenty of potassium and magnesium, which can lower our blood pressure. Also, fruits and vegetables have little to no sodium and are incredibly heart healthy. Thus, while it is not part of our culture, it is important to serve vegetables and fruits with every meal including a breakfast vegetable and a dinner fruit!

[i] American Heart Association Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention
Source reference:
Mozaffarian D, et al "The global impact of sodium consumption on cardiovascular mortality: A global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment" EPI/NPAM 2013; Abstract 28

[ii] Circulation. 2013 Jan 1;127(1):143-52

[iii] Nature. 2013 Mar 6. doi: 10.1038/nature11868. [Epub ahead of print]​