Fixing our nation's healthcare dilemma could be as easy as cutting our salt intake, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. A food additive that the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have much power to regulate, salt has become more and more prevalent in our diets, as we eat out more and spend more grocery dollars on ready-made but heavily processed food. But the health problems associated with too much salt—including high blood pressure, heart disease, and increased risk of stroke—have many public health officials suggesting we all cut back. And as it turns out, it won't take much to turn the salty tide.
THE DETAILS: The scientists used computer modeling to see how much money could be saved by cutting 3 grams (g) of salt from the average American's daily diet. That's about 1,200 milligrams (mg) of sodium, and a mere half-teaspoon of salt. Their research found that a slight reduction in our salt intake could result in 60,000 to 120,000 fewer cases of heart disease and 32,000 to 66,000 fewer strokes, and it could reduce the number of deaths by up to 92,000 each year. In addition, such a move would cut between $10 billion to $24 billion in healthcare costs. Even cutting intake by a single gram—barely a third of a teaspoon—could reduce heart disease by 37,000 cases, strokes by 20,000, and deaths by 28,000.
WHAT IT MEANS: Although groups like the American Heart Association recommend that healthy adults get less than 6 g of salt (about 2,300 mg of sodium) each day, the average adult male gets 10.4 g and the average adult woman consumes 7.3, according to the study's authors. If you're looking for a fast and easy way to improve your health, start by cutting 400 mg of sodium, equal to 1 g of salt, out of your diet each day. Then work toward eliminating the recommended 3 g.
#1: Don't eat at Denny's. Not reaching for the salt shaker may help a little, but table salt isn't the big problem. Americans get 75 to 80 percent of their sodium from eating out and from processed foods, the authors of the study write. And Denny's food has such high sodium levels that the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently sued them, in the hopes of getting the chain to cut its use of salt. However, Denny's is far from alone. CSPI has accused Red Lobster of being the saltiest chain in the business, and points out frequently with its "Xtreme Eating Awards" that many restaurant dishes have nearly twice the amount of sodium you should consume in a day. The group notes that appetizers can account for as much as 1,800 mg per serving—that's more than half your recommended intake before you even hit the main course. When you eat out, opt for "low-sodium" menu alternatives, which technically means that the dishes have less than 140 mg per serving. You can also research a restaurant's menu online before you go out, or use a smartphone app to look up nutrition information.
#2: Swap out white flour for wheat. A single cup of whole wheat flour has 6 mg of sodium, compared to 1,588 mg in that all-purpose, self-rising, refined white flour. So go for whole grains when you cook, to cut that 1,200 mg of sodium (and then some). The same goes for the bread that you buy. A slice of white bread has 170 mg of sodium, while a slice of whole wheat bread has 145—not a huge difference, but nevertheless a step closer to that 3 g salt-reduction target.
#3: Make your own TV dinners. Frozen TV dinners can serve up as much as 850 mg of sodium, and some frozen dishes, such as frozen pizzas, have 1,000 mg or more. If you buy those because of convenience, designate one weekend afternoon to cook a few of your own "TV dinners." Make casseroles that have half the sodium of a normal frozen entrée, and freeze individual portions that you can just grab and reheat throughout the week. Cook and freeze your own fresh vegetables, too. Nearly all canned vegetables, as well as some frozen vegetables, are bolstered with salt for preservation and can have sodium levels that reach into the 500 mg-per-serving range.
#4: Mix low-sodium salads. Whether it's the dressing, the cheese, the croutons, or the meat you add for flavor, salads can be remarkably high in sodium. Commercial Italian dressing can have 243 mg of sodium per tablespoon, while a dressing made at home from vinegar and oil has 0; add some herbs and garlic for more flavor without adding any sodium. Cheese has naturally occurring sodium, and adding a few crumbles of feta to your salad could boost the sodium content by 316 mg. Even cheddar and mozzarella contain sodium in the 150 mg-per-serving range. Instead of cheese, boil or roast some chicken on your designated cooking day to add flavor to salads; just watch out for "enhanced" poultry, which is injected with salt-water to help it stay moist while cooking and contains 300 mg more sodium than regular birds.
#5: Choose sherbet over cheesecake. You may not typically associate dessert with a high salt content, but sodium can infiltrate your sweet treats pretty easily. A piece of cheesecake can pack 165 mg of sodium, whereas a half-cup of orange sherbet has just 34 mg. When you get into cakes and pies, the sodium levels usually start at 200 mg and go up from there. Stick with sorbets, sherbets, or simple fresh fruit for dessert most of the time, so you don't finish your day with a salty surprise.
Published on: January 21, 2010