“Despite the commonly held myth that salt causes high blood pressure, Americans consume, on average, more than twice the sodium they need each day. See more salt pictures.Jupiterimages/Comstock/© Getty Images/Thinkstock
One out of three American adults has high blood pressure (hypertension). While it’s a treatable and reversible condition, it remains a silent killer — according to the American Heart Association, more than 56,000 Americans died from hypertension in 2006, and the numbers grow significantly higher when we talk about deaths from diseases linked to high blood pressure, including heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
While you may try cutting back on how much salt you eat to lower your risk of developing high blood pressure, it’s not always that easy. Myths about salt and sodium abound. For instance, do you think salt and sodium are the same thing? Let’s find out.
- Salt and Sodium are the Same
- We Shouldn't Eat Any Salt or Sodium
- Too Much Salt Causes High Blood Pressure
- Foods High in Sodium Taste Salty
- Medications Don't Have a Significant Sodium Content
5: Salt and Sodium are the Same
This first myth, that salt and sodium are the same, is just that: a myth. Sodium is an essential part of salt, which is also known as sodium chloride, but sodium is also found in many other places. Sodium is an alkali metal, like potassium, and is not only used to flavor our foods, but also as a preservative, binder and stabilizer.
It’s important to read food labels, including both the nutritional facts — where the amount of sodium in the product is listed — and the ingredients list. Salt is an obvious source of sodium, but also look for other forms, including any word or phrase that begins with ‘sodium,’ such as sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium benzoate, sodium chloride, sodium saccharin and sodium stearoyl lactylate among others. Also keep an eye open for sodium sources that may not be as obvious, such as disodium phosphate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and trisodium phosphate.
4: We Shouldn't Eat Any Salt or Sodium
Sodium is essential to our body’s well being, as long as we have the right amount. Without it, our bodies wouldn’t be able to keep the right balance of fluids, which would affect our blood pressure, blood volume and electrolyte levels. Sodium also helps our muscles and nerves function properly. What our bodies don’t use, we get rid of through our sweat and urine.
A diet without enough sodium could lead to diarrhea and fluid loss, and, in severe cases, it may lead to seizures, coma or brain damage. And a diet with too much sodium can cause thirst and, in severe instances, it can lead to seizure, coma, brain damage and death. For people with increased risk of developing high blood pressure, or who are living with high blood pressure, a diet high in sodium can increase the risk of developing heart disease and kidney damage or suffering a stroke.
Sodium Consumption Hasn’t Changed
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health’s department of nutrition studied data collected on American’s salt habits over nearly 50 years and found that we’re creatures of habit. Today we consume about 3,700 mg of sodium per day, almost twice as much as we should. And back in 1957? The same.
3: Too Much Salt Causes High Blood Pressure
Salt is not the cause of high blood pressure, but diets high in sodium are an underlying risk factor, especially for people who are salt-sensitive or have a family history or other increased risk for cardiovascular disease. However, this increased risk can be attributed to poor nutrition in general.
But even if you have a healthy, balanced diet that’s low in sodium, you may still be at risk for developing hypertension (as well as stroke and heart disease). While it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason why one person develops high blood pressure and another doesn’t — in fact, the cause in about 90 to 95 percent of high blood pressure instances is unknown — some factors do put you at risk:
- High blood pressure runs in your family.
- You lead a sedentary lifestyle.
- You’re overweight or obese.
- You drink alcohol.
In addition to these risk factors — and notice salt consumption isn’t one of them — your chances of developing high blood pressure go up as you age.
2: Foods High in Sodium Taste Salty
Bottom line: We salt our food because it tastes good, not because we need the extra sodium. Sodium is an essential element of salt, but not all sodium-rich foods taste salty. You wouldn’t add salt to your breakfast cereal, for example, yet many are high-sodium foods (low-sodium foods contain 140 mg or less of sodium per serving). Sometimes you can’t tell until you read the nutritional information. One serving (1 cup) of General Mills’ Corn Chex cereal contains 240 mg of sodium. Similarly, one serving (1 cup) of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes contains 200 mg of sodium.
A Squeeze of Sodium
Some of our favorite condiments are hidden sodium pitfalls. Like to add ketchup to your burgers and fries? At a whopping 190 mg of sodium per tablespoon, look for low- or no-salt versions or try alternative condiments. And be sure to read the labels!
1: Medications Don't Have a Significant Sodium Content
Indeed, sodium is in the foods we eat, but it’s also in some of the medicines we take. Some over-the-counter cold medicines, pain relievers (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), laxatives and heartburn medicines contain sodium-based ingredients, increasing your daily sodium intake every time you reach for a bottle of antacid. Decongestants, in particular, can be hidden sources of sodium.
Be sure to read the ingredients list — including the inactive ingredients — and look for sodium-based ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium propionate, sodium starch glycolate, sodium carbonate (or bicarbonate), sodium saccharine and sodium polyphosphate.
Lots More Information
- 5 Sodium-free Foods for Dinner
- How Salt Works
- How Food Preservation Works
- American Health Association. "High Blood Pressure Statistics." 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4621
- American Heart Association. "Over-the-Counter Medications." July 26, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure /PreventionTreatmentofHighBloodPressure/Over-the-Counter- Medications_UCM_303245_Article.jsp
- American Heart Association. "Understanding Your Risk for High Blood Pressure." July 30, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure /UnderstandYourRiskforHighBloodPressure/Understand-Your-Risk-for-High- Blood-Pressure_UCM_002052_Article.jsp
- General Mills Inc. "Cereals." 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.generalmills.com/Brands/Cereals/
- H.J. Heinz Company L.P. "Heinz Tomato Ketchup." 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.heinzketchup.com/Products.aspx
- Kellogg’s NA Co. 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www2.kelloggs.com/
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Information and Research. "Sodium in medications: A concern if you have high blood pressure." Sept. 4, 2004. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.megaheart.com/pdf/sodiuminmedications.pdf
- Medical News Today. "Salt (sodium chloride), what it is and how it affects your health." Sept. 12, 2004. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/13273.php
- The Merck Manuals. "Sodium." August 2008. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec12/ch155/ch155m.html
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. "Sodium in diet." May 26, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002415.htm
- Vantine, Julia. "Americans’ Salt Intake Unchanged Over 50 years." U.S. News and World Report. Oct. 20, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/heart/articles/2010/10/20/americans-salt-intake-unchanged-over-50-years.html
- WebMD. "Salt Shockers Slideshow: High-Sodium Surprises." Nov. 17, 2008. (Oct. 28, 2010) http://www.webmd.com/diet/slideshow-salt-shockers