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The Salt Solution: Cutting Back on Sodium

Heeding sodium numbers on nutrition fact labels just might save your life.
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WebMD Feature

Most of the information on nutrition labels can help you stay healthy. Heeding one number in particular -- sodium levels -- just might save your life.

Salt, which is sodium chloride, has long been linked to high blood pressure. And high blood pressure, or hypertension, which afflicts nearly one in three Americans, is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.

Blood pressure is the measure of the force of blood against artery walls. When it rises too high, the pressure causes damage to many organs, including heart, kidneys, brain, and even eyes. By 2025, predictions suggest, 60% of Americans will have high blood pressure.

Salt isn’t the only cause of high blood pressure. Lack of exercise, poor diets, and inherited risk also contribute. “But Americans consume way too much salt, mostly in processed foods,” said University of Pennsylvania nutrition expert Lisa Hark, author of Nutrition for Life. “Cutting back on high-sodium foods is one simple way to lower your risk.”

DASH Your Way to a Low Sodium Diet

The best evidence comes from the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension program, popularly known as DASH, directed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

In one landmark DASH experiment, volunteers were divided into three groups. One group consumed 3,300 milligrams of salt a day, about the average for most Americans. Another limited their intake to just 2,400 mg, which is what most experts recommend. The third cut back to only 1,500 mg a day. Across the spectrum, the less sodium the volunteers consumed, the lower their blood pressure.

“The results of the DASH-sodium study proved convincingly that cutting back on sodium even below recommended levels has impressive benefits,” said Christine A. Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University.

Other studies confirm the benefits of a low-sodium diet. In a 2003 report that pooled results from a variety of research trials around the world, scientists showed that reducing sodium intake by 1,000 mg a day lowers systolic blood pressure by an average of 4 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 2.5 mm Hg in patients with hypertension. Easing off salt reduced blood pressure even in people with what’s considered normal pressure.

Low Salt, Low Sodium = Proven Health Benefits

The ultimate goal, of course, is reducing cardiovascular disease and other complications from hypertension. In a study published in 2007 in the British Medical Journal, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston contacted volunteers who had taken part in two studies of low-sodium diets, one done in 1985 and the other in 1990.

“Our survey showed that many of the participants were still following low-sodium advice,” said epidemiologist Nancy Cook, ScD, who led the study. And Cook’s additional findings showed they were the healthier for it. The research team found that reducing sodium slashed cardiovascular disease by 25% to 30%.

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