Salt: Limit your intake for better heart health

by Deanne Stein Patient Expert

I love to cook, but unfortunately I don't always have the time when I'm working. However, now that I'm on maternity leave, I have been able to cook up some yummy dinners for my family, as long as my newborn cooperates. When I do cook, I love to season my meals, but I rarely use salt. I'm glad, because apparently many of the foods we buy at the store or even eat out, have more than enough salt to taste. In fact, the salt content out there is alarming and many doctors say dangerous for some people.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration held a public hearing about salt. It's considering whether or not to regulate and limit the amount of it in processed foods. Americans typically eat about two teaspoons of salt each day, which is twice the recommended level. Doctors and consumer activists say many people don't even realize they are eating this much salt. It's added to food at restaurants and at the store, many foods contain hundreds of milligrams of sodium. According to one activist, the sodium level needs to be lowered in many mainstream products, like soups, breads, ham, hot dogs and chips.

Many food manufacturers use salt in high doses to preserve food, because it prevents spoiling and kills bacteria. But there are other ways to preserve food, such as refrigeration, freezing and chemical preservatives. However, some manufacturers continue to use salt. Apparently, it makes food more tasteful, reduces dryness in some foods and increases the sweetness in others. However, the American Medical Association says about 150,000 lives could be saved each year if the FDA would limit the salt content of packaged foods.

So why is salt so harmful? The FDA considers salt safe, in general, but only in small doses. Too much salt can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, sodium makes the body hold on to fluid. So to pump the added fluid, the heart has to work harder. People with existing heart problems, shouldn't put this added stress on their hearts. Also, too much salt can worsen swelling, shortness of breath and cause weight gain. Doctors say healthy adults need between 1,500 and 2,400 milligrams of sodium each day or about one teaspoon. However, people with heart failure, should consume no more than 2,000 milligrams of salt per day. If you have high blood pressure, are African-American, are older than age 50, or have a chronic condition such as kidney disease or diabetes, you should shoot for less than 1,500 milligrams of salt a day. Until the FDA decides what to do, there are ways to monitor your salt intake.

The AHA suggests eating fewer processed foods such as potato chips, frozen dinners and cured meats. Also, choose foods labeled "low sodium" or "reduced sodium." Don't add salt to your food. Instead, use herbs and spices to flavor foods. Eat more fresh foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, poultry and fish, as well as unprocessed grains.

Related Information:

How to be Savvy with Food Labeling

Making Your Favorite Recipes Heart Healthy

Deanne Stein
Meet Our Writer
Deanne Stein

Deanne Stein wrote about heart disease as a patient expert for HealthCentral.