Pass on the salt, not pass the salt.

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Insidious health threat, or innocent flavor enhancer? Take a closer look at the planet’s tastiest mineral

By Maria Masters, Photographs by Greg Broom, Posted Date: October 19, 2010


America has declared war on salt. The nutrition militia, claiming that the enemy is attacking you and your buddies, points to hypertension stats: More than 20 percent of American men between 35 and 44 have high blood pressure. Even the Institute of Medicine is leaning on the government to set standards for sodium content in foods; and the American Heart Association, along with the City of New York and 30 other cities, is promoting a new National Salt Reduction Initiative.

So should you enlist? It’s a tough battle. "If people want to avoid salt, they really can’t—not unless they skip processed, prepared, and restaurant foods," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

What’s more, salt may not even be the true enemy. Before you sign up to fight, tune out the hysteria and plunge into the latest nutrition intel.

Can I live without salt?


Salt is essential to health. Your body can’t make it, and your cells need it to function, says Aryan Aiyer, M.D., director of the heart center at Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh medical center. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends consuming at least 3.8 grams of salt a day (just over 1/2 teaspoon), mainly for the sodium.

Sodium is an electrolyte, a humble member of that hyped class of minerals that help maintain muscle function and hydration; that’s why sport drinks contain sodium. You’re constantly losing sodium through sweat and urine, and if you don’t replenish that sodium and water, your blood pressure may drop far enough to make you dizzy and light-headed. "Sodium acts like a sponge to help hold fluids in your blood," says Rikki Keen, R.D., an adjunct instructor of dietetics and nutrition at the University of Alaska.

However, people who chug too much water can lower their sodium levels so far that they develop hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition more common among recreational exercisers than professional athletes, says Marie Spano, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Atlanta. Salt does more than just make our food taste good; without it, we’d die.

Do I need to watch my salt intake like a hawk?

Not necessarily

If you have high blood pressure, you’ve probably been advised to cut back on salt. The mechanism seems clear: Sodium causes your blood to hold more water, so your heart has to pump harder, making your blood pressure rise. If your blood pressure is already high, that’s a problem. (A high intake of salt can also be dangerous for people who are salt-sensitive—that is, they have trouble excreting excess salt.)

What if you’re a healthy guy? The Institute of Medicine is adamant in recommending that people ages 14 and over consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day—about a teaspoon of salt. The Institute of Medicine sets a lower limit (1,500 milligrams, or slightly more than 1/2 teaspoon) for middle-aged and older adults, African Americans, and people with kidney disease, hypertension, or diabetes.

But even though the average American blows past both limits, consuming an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, some experts say that’s not a problem for most men. "I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that healthy men with normal blood pressure should reduce their sodium intake," says Michael Alderman, M.D., a professor of medicine at Yeshiva University.

For starters, reducing the salt content of your diet could adversely affect your health, Dr. Alderman says. In a study review published in the Journal of Hypertension, people who reduced their sodium intake by about 1,000 milligrams experienced lower blood pressure, but also higher heart rates and decreased insulin sensitivity, which can raise diabetes risk. Because of these effects, he says, we need clinical trials to determine whether lowering salt intake actually improves health outcomes in the general population.

And let’s not forget that sodium isn’t the only blood-pressure booster. "The huge message everyone overlooks is that being overweight also contributes to high blood pressure," says Spano.

Read more at Men’s Health:

The 10 Saltiest Foods

by Cassie Shortsleeve February 12, 2012, 07:30 am EST

Doesn’t taste salty? Don’t be deceived. According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ten unsuspecting food types account for 44 percent of the salt you’re eating every day. While your intake should generally be no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day, these foods—many of which you’re eating multiple times a day—are skyrocketing that number. (Should you be worried about your sodium? Read The Truth about Salt to learn.)

Here are the ten foods to beware of, and the less salty swaps to accompany them.

Breads and Rolls
We know that bagels aren’t the most health-conscious choice out there, but did you know that Dunkin’ Donuts Salt Bagel has almost 3,500 mg of sodium? The investigators found that 65 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from food bought in stores, so if you’re starting the day at the bagel shop, an onion bagel has just 380 mg of salt.

Deli Meats and Cured Meats
Considering adding salami to a sandwich? Six thin slices has the same amount of salt as 39 Ritz crackers (about 1,130 mg)—and that’s just the meat of the sandwich. Go with shaved honey ham instead. The same amount of meat has half the amount of salt.

The ingredients in pizza seem simple enough, but get this: Uno Chicago Grill’s Classic Individual Pizza has almost 5,000 mg of salt. Swapping thick for thin, and slobs of mozzarella cheese for feta can save your waistline—this type of a pizza will have around 560 mg of sodium.

Fresh and Processed Poultry
It doesn’t get any plainer than grilled chicken, right? You need to read the fine print with this one. Check the label on raw chicken for something like “10 percent broth solution.” Translation? 60 mg or more of salt per chicken breast. What you want: No added broth.

A liquid lunch isn’t scoring you any points when it comes to salt intake—especially if you’re eating out. Researchers have found that 25 percent of our sodium intake comes from restaurant meals. Friendly’s Chunky Chicken Noodle? Almost double what your daily intake should be. Substitute Minestrone—it packs about a third the salt.

Burgers and sandwiches alike can pack upwards of 4,000 mg of salt in between the buns after cheeses and sauces (we’re talking to you, Quizno’s and McDonald’s). Try something homemade like this Turkey-Swiss-Guac Burger. According to the USDA, naturally occurring salt accounts for only 13 percent of our sodium intake—77 percent is added by food manufacturers.

More from 10 Sinister Sources of Salt

The perpetrators: parmesan, and cottage cheese—which pack 850 mg of sodium per 10 tablespoons, and 918 mg per cup, respectively. Go with cheddar—it has about half the amount of salt—or low-sodium versions of cottage that have about 30 mg.

Pasta Dishes
Ramen noodle diet? Might be saving you money, but . . . that’s about all it’s good for. Half a package has a little more than 1,000 mg of salt. If you go with Annie Chun’s Teriyaki Noodle Bowl you’ll cut your salt intake in half.

Meat Dishes
Steak can be tricky—Claim Jumpers Country Fried Steak has upwards of 6,000 mg of salt coated in a batter of salt and fat. A filet, on the other hand, has 1,270 mg. Even better? Try this Grilled Steak Red Wine Butter recipe at just 470 mg of sodium.

Salty Snacks (Pretzels, Chips, Popcorn)
Rold Gold pretzels lover? You’re enjoying about 450 mg of sodium per serving—almost 20 percent of your daily intake. Switch to Triscuits—they have about 135 mg of sodium per serving.

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