The reason for the high salt consumption, says Obarzanek, a nutritionist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, is processed foods. Manufacturers, she says, load in the sodium in the belief that it makes the foods tastier. "A half cup of prepared spaghetti sauce contains more than 600 mg of sodium," she adds.
Vollmer, who works as a researcher at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon, agrees and says some foods should be erased from shopping lists. "Pickles are especially bad because the sodium content varies so much," he tells WebMD. Fast-food restaurants pose particular challenges, says Vollmer, who adds "I used to work at one of those places ... avoid the french fries in all cases." For those who can't avoid a quick trip to the drive through window, Obarzanek suggests taking a "hold the pickle, hold the ketchup, add more tomatoes, and don't salt the burger," approach.
Fast-food quips aside, Sacks says the study has serious public health implications. Restricting salt and switching to a healthy diet could "result in a 20% reduction in the prevalence of heart attacks and 35% reduction in strokes," he says. Those reductions would be seen in people with and without high blood pressure, he says.
It is possible, Sacks says, that "a person taking blood pressure medications may be able to reduce their reliance on medications by switching to this diet," he says. For example, a person taking two drugs to control blood pressure might be able to discontinue one of the medications, Sacks says.
Vollmer tells WebMD that the take-home message is "to eat fewer processed foods." He says, however, that it's best to take a realistic approach. He suggests, for example, that whole foods be prepared without salt during the cooking process and that salt should be added when the foods are served. He says that the researchers found that cooking with salt doesn't improve taste but does leave harmful amounts of salt behind. "We found that adding the salt after preparation can satisfy the 'taste for salt,' but uses less salt to do so," Vollmer says. He says that people may initially find food less tasty, but after a few days when the body becomes used to less last, most people will begin to complain about the salty taste when served foods seasoned the "normal" way.
Obarzanek says that the study findings suggest that "obviously, salted foods, such as potato chips, have no place in a healthy diet. We need to teach people to read labels to find out sodium content, and we need to get the food industry on board to make more low-sodium foods available," she says.