What’s the Big Deal About Salt and Your Heart?

By Deborah Pike Olsen

You probably worry about how much fat is in your diet, but you might not think twice about salt. Big mistake: Consuming too much salt kills more people than artery-clogging trans fat, says Stephen Havas, M.D., adjunct professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. In fact, at least 150,000 people die each year because of their salt intake, he says. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Too much salt causes your blood vessels to swell. Salt triggers your body to hold on to water, wherever it can, and in this case, high-sodium levels can make the blood vessels retain excess fluid. All this extra water increases pressure in the artery walls, which overtime can contribute to high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, says Dr. Havas. “Over time, 90 percent of people in this country will develop high blood pressure, and excess sodium is the primary reason,” he says.

2. Many sources of sodium are hidden. About 75 percent of our daily salt intake comes from restaurants and processed foods, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. A single restaurant meal may contain 1,300 mg of sodium, and many canned or frozen foods contain 1,000 mg or more in an 8-ounce serving. Major sources of sodium include bread, chicken, pizza, pasta, cold cuts, cheese, soups and beef, according to the National Cancer Institute. Taken together, these foods can pour upwards of 2,000 mg of sodium into the body per day.

3. A little salt goes a long way. Our bodies need salt to maintain the body’s fluid balance and to generate electrical impulses in nerves and muscles. But thing is, you don’t need much of it. The American Heart Association and the advisory committee for the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day—which translates to about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt. Unfortunately, most Americans are eating much more than that…close to 4,000 mg daily. However, reducing our intake by just 10 percent could potentially prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes, according to new and emerging research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

4. You can de-salt your palate! When you’re cooking, experiment with different spices—thyme, oregano, basil, even pepper. At a restaurant, ask your server which dishes can be prepared without adding salt. Avoid fast-food restaurants and processed foods as much as possible, and read food labels carefully. There can be wide variation in sodium content for a single type of food, such as bread or tomato sauce, says Dr. Havas. Finally, limit salty snacks and consider adding fresh lemon juice instead of salt to fish and vegetables.


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