Lifestyle

Most Americans eat too much sodium, but don't think it's a problem | Gustafson

Americans continue to have a much higher sodium intake than they should and most don't care or don't believe that it's a major health concern, according to two new studies that were done for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

One of the surveys, conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), found that nearly 60 percent of 1,000 Americans who were asked about their eating habits said they were "not concerned" about sodium levels in their food. Seventy percent admitted they did not know about the government's dietary guidelines for sodium intake. More than half of the respondents who said they had high blood pressure still didn't know what the recommended sodium limits were.

While a majority of those interviewed agreed that eating more fruits and vegetables was important, only 38 percent thought that limiting sodium was also part of a healthy diet. Thirty-nine percent believed that sodium reduction would make food less tasty.

A second study, which was done for the ADA by Mintel International, arrived at similar conclusions.

"A significant proportion of people don't think they need to do more (to achieve a healthy diet), despite increasing rates of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related health conditions," said ADA spokesperson, Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo. "Despite of what people say, virtually all indicators show that half of the American public is in fact not doing all it can to achieve a healthy diet," she added.

Sodium-loaded foods

One of the reasons why sodium intake is so hard to control is that its sources are not always obvious. In fact, it's not so much the use of table salt we should be worried about but the processed and prepared foods that are filled with sodium. Almost 80 percent of people's average sodium intake comes from those.

Our bodies need certain amounts of sodium to function properly. For instance, sodium is necessary to maintain the right balance of fluids, transmit nerve impulses and influence the contraction and relaxation of muscles, among other important functions.

Normally, the kidneys are able to balance the amount of sodium required for optimal health. When sodium levels fall too low, the kidneys hold on to the sodium that is still available. When levels go up too high, excess amounts get excreted in the urine. However, when there is consistently more sodium present than the kidneys can eliminate, sodium accumulates in the blood. Because sodium holds water, the blood volume in the body increases, making the heart work harder to move the extra blood volume through the blood vessels. This puts more pressure on the arteries. If this condition becomes chronic, a number of serious health risks can occur, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure.

"The human diet, for millions of years, did not contain any added salt – only the sodium present in natural foods, adding up to only 1,000 mg sodium per day. Today, the dietary intake of sodium in the U.S. is about 3,500 mg/day," said Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD, a physician and best-selling book author who specializes in nutritional medicine.

The American Heart Association (AHA), recognizing the multiple health risks from sodium, has recently lowered its recommendations for maximum sodium consumption from 2,300 mg to 1,500 mg.

The best way to control your daily sodium intake is to keep eating processed food items to a minimum. Be aware that even foods that don't taste salty – e.g. breads, pastries, pizza, pasta, fast foods, cheese and soups – can still contain large amounts of sodium.

Don't add salt to your cooking or at the table. Use herbs and spices instead to enhance flavors.

Don't be fooled by false claims about more healthful salt varieties. Expensive and exotic sea salts are still salt. They may contain small amounts of minerals, but these are easily available in plant foods as well.

When you buy processed and packaged foods, read the Nutrition Facts labels carefully and choose the brand with the lowest amount of sodium per serving.

Your taste for salt (as well as sugar and fat) has been acquired over time. Weaning yourself from salted foods may take some time. But after a few weeks of cutting back on salt, you probably won't miss it any longer and some foods may even taste too salty to you.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook.

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