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Are low-sodium diets just for people with high blood pressure?

You don't need to worry about the sodium in your diet unless you have a health condition like heart disease or high blood pressure -- right? Wrong. Americans love their salt, and most get too much sodium.

It may not have calories, but sodium is not as innocent as many people think. Too much sodium can increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. This is cause for concern, as heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and No. 3 killers of men and women in the U.S. (Cancer is No. 2.)

The CDC estimates that the average American consumes 3,436 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day – far more than the maximum recommendation of 2,300 mg (the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt). But a CDC report suggests that nearly half of all Americans and almost all adults need to cut back even further, to no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Count yourself among this group if you are older than 51; African-American; or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.

Not Just the Salt Shaker

The Mintel research group estimates that more than half of U.S. consumers now monitor the sodium in their diets. And manufacturers are responding. Campbell’s, for example, is reducing the sodium in many of its soups. The number of new food products claiming to be low-sodium, no-sodium, or reduced-sodium increased 115% from 2005 to 2008.

That’s a good thing, because 70%-80% of the sodium in U.S. diets comes not from the salt shaker but from packaged, processed, restaurant, and store-bought foods. Only about 5% comes from salt added during cooking; about 6% comes from salt added at the table.

In May, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report that found 85 out of 102 restaurant meals from 17 popular chains had more than a full day's worth of sodium. Some had more than four days’ worth.

But reducing sodium is not easy. Our taste buds have grown accustomed to the salty taste of most foods and unlike for sugar, there are few convincing substitutes. Not only does sodium flavor foods, it also acts as a preservative and as an inhibitor in leavening agents. Sodium is found not only in salt but also in baking soda, baking powder, and MSG.

Still, if you're one of the two out of three adults at risk for health problems from too much sodium, the CDC report should serve as a wake-up call to lower the amount of sodium you consume.

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