Want to Live Longer? Hold the Salt
Excessive salt intake is bad for you…sound familiar? While this probably isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) time you’ve been reminded to limit your salt consumption, this public health message is simply too important not to repeat.
Numerous health risks are associated with high sodium intake, and with new research predicting alarming long-term health outcomes if we fail to heed the warning, there’s all the more reason to make a change today.
What’s Wrong with Salt?
In and of itself, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with salt. In fact, we need a minimum amount of salt in our diets to function properly, and even to survive. Moreover, salt has been a staple in human foods across the world from the beginning of time. The problem is the construction of the average Western diet as it stands today — one which features sodium at staggering, unprecedented levels.
The typical Western diet now revolves around processed foods to feed an ever-growing population, most of which are surprisingly high in salt, which not only helps to preserve foods, but suits our taste buds as they’ve become accustomed to salty foods. French fries, pizza, snack foods like chips and pretzels, and most types of fast food are all popular and are all typically high in sodium — not to mention many foods that we may not immediately associate with salt, such as cheese, lunch meats, pasta sauce, canned vegetables and soups, and even bread, just to name a few.
And, unfortunately, there are significant consequences associated with excessive sodium intake. People who exceed the recommended levels of consumption are at a greater risk for developing a variety of serious medical conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, bone health and certain kinds of cancer. The risks are real, and the road we’re currently going down as a society could lead to a pressing public health crisis.
How Much Salt Should You Consume?
The American Heart Association states that we need a relatively small amount of sodium — less than 500 milligrams per day, which is contained in about a quarter of a teaspoon of salt — each day to function properly. Nevertheless, the United States government currently recommends that all individuals limit their sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, which is significantly higher than the mere 1,500 milligram-limit recommended by the American Health Association.
It is difficult to generalize recommendations at the population-level as different types of people should consume less salt than others (particularly people with heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes, among others), but there is enough evidence to err on the side of staying below the 1,500 milligram daily recommendation.
Meeting that recommendation may seem straightforward enough, but not so fast. The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day (roughly the amount found in four tablespoons of standard soy sauce), or almost seven times the necessary level! In other words, we have a lot of work to do.
A Salty Concern for the Future
By now the message is pretty clear; on average, salt is abundant in our diets and that could lead to numerous diseases. But how can we quantify that risk and what does it mean?
One way to shed light on the long-term impact of continuing at our current levels of sodium consumption is to forecast what might happen if nothing changes, and recent research published in the journal PLOS Medicine did just that. Using a twenty-year timeline to project multiple scenarios from 2017 to 2036, the researchers compared the expected outcomes of following the FDA guidelines to our current sodium intake figures.
Encouragingly, the researchers project that if we are able to reduce our sodium intake to the recommended levels, the United States would likely see 450,000 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease and 83,000 fewer deaths over the forthcoming twenty-year time period. Those are huge discrepancies, and they don’t even include the increased quality of life many people would enjoy, nor the tens of billions of dollars that would be saved in healthcare costs.
How to Limit Your Salt Intake
Convinced that it’s time for a change? The first step to eliminating excess salt in your diet is mindfulness. If you are not already doing so, start paying close attention to the amounts of sodium in the processed foods that you buy, not to mention that in fast foods and restaurant foods (often these nutrition facts may be found online, if not in the store itself).
Consider tracking the amount of salt you’re consuming for a few weeks to get a baseline measure of your typical daily intake. Seek out low-sodium options, consume less processed foods in general, and refrain from adding table salt to your food whenever possible.
Once you have a handle on the basics, there are several useful strategies that you can employ to further reduce your levels to the recommended dosage as needed. Additionally, if you find that your food is lacking flavor, there are salt-free alternatives that you can experiment with to suit your tastes. Limiting our salt consumption has truly never been more challenging than it is today, but the prospect of living a longer life makes it worth the effort.
Derek is a researcher, presenter and community liaison at the Behavioral Health & Wellness Program at the University of Colorado, specializing in promoting health systems change and combating health disparities. With his background as a technical writer and editor, he has over 15 years of experience working in the health care field. His experience includes serving as a contributing author on several textbooks in the medical field, running a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and writing a variety of other pieces ranging from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal passion for health and wellness by playing multiple sports, hiking and running marathons, and travels extensively, having visited or lived in over 60 countries.