The Skinny On Salt. How Much Is Too Much?

Cutting back, even just a little bit, may make us healthier.

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I've heard that if Americans cut back on salt intake, even just a little, we'd be a lot less at risk for heart attacks and stroke. What amount should I consume each day? Also, where might salt lurk that I'm not aware of?

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Sodium, usually in the form of common table salt, is an essential nutrient, but like most essential nutrients, too much can be a problem. Studies over the past decade have shown unequivocally that reductions in sodium will benefit almost everyone in the United States by lowering their blood pressure, even if they do not technically have hypertension. Because reductions in blood pressure reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, it is estimated that many tens of thousands of deaths could be prevented each year if we were to reduce our average intake from about 3,500 mg per day to the recommended upper limit of 2,300 mg per day for adults. This would mean reducing intake from about 1 1/2 teaspoons per day to 1 teaspoon per day. For those with hypertension, adults over 40, and African-Americans, the recommended upper limit is 1,500 mg per day, or about two thirds of a teaspoon.

Unfortunately, we don't see most of the salt that we eat because it is added in the processing and preparation of foods. For example, the single greatest source of salt in the U.S. diet is bread, which we don't think of as a salty food. Thus, if we are to achieve the recommended limits for sodium intake, this will require reductions by food processors and restaurants, especially fast-food chains. Regulations that require all producers to gradually reduce the amounts in their products simultaneously will probably be needed; if done in this way, the lower amounts of salt will not be noticed. In the meantime, consumers can emphasize unprocessed foods in their diet and read labels carefully. If a product has more than about 200 milligrams per serving, or more than 1 milligram per calorie, think about alternatives.

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