Salt is shaking its bad reputation

August 12, 1998|By Elizabeth Hiser | Elizabeth Hiser,Eating Well Magazine

It's time to put our fear of salt in the proper perspective.

The USDA recommendation that all Americans cut back on salt is again under fire. This time I hope the blow will be fatal.

If you're surprised to hear this from a nutritionist, you probably don't know that many experts question the benefit of low-salt diets for healthy people. In fact, the subject has been debated for years, long before the recent report that people who eat the most salt live longer than people who eat the least.

Yet "hold the salt" has remained the prevailing message, in spite of the fact that an estimated two-thirds of the population is not prone to hypertension caused by salt sensitivity.

Those who defend the recommendation say that getting all Americans to cut down on salt will help inch down the country's average blood pressure, which could save lives and health care dollars. But it hasn't worked yet. Despite the recommended salt cutbacks, our hypertension problem is worse than ever. And that's because we weigh more and are more sedentary than ever - two factors that can affect anyone's blood pressure.

The defenders of the sodium restriction also contend that even if salt is not a threat to most people, cutting down won't do any harm. However, there are now two studies that suggest quite the opposite. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of more than 20,000 adults found that a low sodium intake was associated with higher mortality rates from all causes, including cardiovascular disease. And a 1995 study involving 1,900 hypertensive men found more than four times as many heart attacks among those who consume the lowest levels of sodium compared with those who had the highest intake.

Although these reports are by no means the final word, I do think it's time to put the public-health message about salt in its proper perspective. Salt does not make you fat, nor does it cause heart disease. The more important priorities are eating a plant-based diet low in saturated fat and following these strategies, which have been proven to lower blood pressure:

* Maintain a healthy weight. People who are overweight are two to three times more likely to be hypertensive.

* Get enough exercise. In addition to helping with weight control, regular exercise helps maintain healthy blood pressure by increasing the flexibility and size of major blood vessels.

* Eat more high-calcium foods. A recent study has shown that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products lowers blood pressure more effectively than a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet that does not include dairy products.

* Eat more high-potassium foods. Potassium helps lower blood pressure, and most fruits and vegetables are excellent sources.

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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