Q&A: Why is salt bad for your heart?
with Dr. Bussie Evans, Cardiologist
Why is salt bad for your heart?
Dr. Evans: Our bodies need a little salt for optimal health, however the typical American diet can contain two or three times the amount needed. Too much salt causes the body to retain water. This increase in fluid in the body increases blood pressure which puts a strain on blood vessels, the heart and kidneys. As a result, people with high blood pressure have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Does everyone need to monitor their salt intake?
Dr. Evans: It’s safe to say that everyone eating an American diet could benefit from paying attention to and reducing their salt intake. Most people have no idea how much salt they consume. People assume that if they don’t use their salt shaker much, they aren’t eating much salt. But salt / sodium is already present in many of the foods we eat. Especially processed foods. It is important to pay attention to your salt intake if you have high blood pressure, and if you have heart failure, too much sodium and the accompanying fluid retention can be very dangerous.
Dr. Evans: The Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, however for most adults, especially seniors, no more than 1,500 milligrams is a better guideline. Our blood pressure tends to increase as we age, so lowering salt intake can help to keep it in check. To give you an idea, one teaspoon of salt is 2,300 mg of sodium. In packaged foods, the amount of sodium is on the nutrition label, but pay close attention to the serving size. Let’s say that a can of soup has 800 mgs of sodium per serving, but a serving is only 1/2 a cup. To be realistic, you are likely to eat one whole cup of soup if not more and then you’ve already exceeded your recommended daily sodium intake. It’s just that easy to take in too much salt if you’re not paying attention.
How can I reduce salt if it’s already in the food I eat?
Dr. Evans: Ideally, eating more fresh foods that are prepared at home rather than packaged foods can make a big difference not just in salt consumption but in your overall health. And when cooking at home, use more herbs and spices for flavor and less salt. For recipes and meal plans, there are a lot of free resources you can find online by looking up the DASH Diet. When buying packaged foods, read the labels and look for lower sodium alternatives. It really doesn’t take long for your tastes to adjust to less salt and you’ll soon find that some foods taste way too salty. Certain foods are known for containing a lot of salt, and unfortunately, they are American favorites: pizza, sandwiches, soup, breads and baked goods, cold cuts, poultry, cheese, and of course condiments and sauces. People tend to ignore the nutritional labels on condiments, but soy sauce or barbeque sauce, for example, can really blow up your daily sodium intake. There are ways to make some of these salty favorites less salty and more healthy like getting the thin crust pizza with more vegetables, half the cheese and an uncured meat instead of pepperoni. However at the very least, limit your portions of salty foods.
If I limit my salt intake will my blood pressure be normal?
Cutting back on salt is one of the easiest things you can do to help your blood pressure, but it is not a cure all. There can be other causes of high blood pressure such as family history, poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight, smoking, and excess alcohol consumption. Limiting salt intake should be part of an overall heart healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a heart healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. High blood pressure, much like high cholesterol, is a silent risk factor of heart disease, so having your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly can help you and your doctor find lifestyle modifications, or medications if needed, to reduce your risks for cardiovascular disease.