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Salted to Death? Here's How to Control It

We need salt, we love salt. But we need less.

The CDC Reports

The CDC reports that Americans are taking in large amounts of salt—on average 3266 mg—before the salt added at the dining room table. Much of it is coming from processed foods and restaurant meals.

Why Should We Care?

The more salt you take in, the more high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease you see in a population. Cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death in this country.

Where Does the Salt Come From?

Number 1—Bread and rolls. The rest of the CDC's top 10 list:

2. Cold cuts/cured meats

3. Pizza

4. Poultry

5. Soups

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6. Sandwiches

7. Cheese

8. Mixed pasta

9. Mixed meat dishes

10. "Savory" snacks

Most of these food sources were processed foods. We really do love them.

How much of the total salt intake came from processed food?

65%.

How much came from restaurants?

25%.

How many deaths would be prevented by decreasing salt intake by a third?

Present estimate—81,000 a year.

How Much Salt Do We Really Need?

It's almost impossible to get an "American" diet with less than 1000 mg a day. We perhaps require 70-90 mg a day through loss in urine and skin.

Why Do We Take In So Much Salt?

As with sugar it helps things taste good. Restaurants without salt in their food are frequently restaurants that don't stay in business.

Can We Be Trained to "Need" Less Salt?

Absolutely. Olfactory nerves—a large part of taste—are completely replaced in around six to eight weeks (internally they regenerate much faster). There is so much salt in many natural foods that we don't need to add anything to get enough.

Are Kids Being Trained to Desire Lots of Salt In Their Food?

Curiously, most of the food categories—with the exception of "savory snacks" and cheese—more popular than the young than the old—don't vary much through the lifecycle.

Still, it appears that kids are being conditioned to ingest large amounts of salt—as they are to eating large amounts of sugar.

How Can We Fix the Problem?

Have people eat whole foods—and cook for themselves.

Why Won't That Happen?

Heavily salted foods are often the cheapest—as in very long preserved cans of soup. McDonald's now cooks about 7% of American meals. Their food contains lots of government subsidized high fructose corn syrup and very large amounts of salt.

Why Do Whole Natural Foods Help?

Data show that salt intake is not the only issue—intake of potassium makes a big difference.

If people can eat lots of fruits and vegetables, they increase their potassium to sodium ratio. Do that, and you can markedly decrease the risk of death from high blood pressure—even when people's blood pressure remains higher than it should.

Why Is This Problem So Difficult?

According to government statistics, 31% of the population has high blood pressure. Only about half have it in partially controlled.

High blood pressure is generally asymptomatic. People respond far more directly to symptomatic diseases than silent ones—even if asymptomatic ones kill them.

How Could We Change All This?

Make health the national priority—not health care. Educate kids about salt. Encourage and subsidize vegetable and fruit consumption. Put salt contents next to menus in restaurants and schools. Pay GPs to talk to patients about salt, sugar and diet—and pay them to control blood pressure.

Nature just ran an editorial about taxing sugar like we do alcohol.

There won't be any legislation to tax salt. Salt is too necessary to preserving food.

We love salt. We should get what we need.

Just not that much more.

Matthew Edlund, M.D. researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health; he is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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