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Here's What's Shakin' With Salt

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But McCarron stands firm. "We have made too much of the issue of low sodium diets helping reduce blood pressure, and in that process we have not been talking to people about the issues that really matter," McCarron tells WebMD. Those issues are weight, too much alcohol, and getting a balanced diet. "We're not promoting the DASH diet, which has shown an effect that is probably 10 times as powerful as reducing salt." The DASH diet includes eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products.

"The problem is we started setting policy before we did the science," says McCarron. "What happens is that you get policy and education, and basically the bias is built-in. And then you get the data, and then what do you do?"

"Sometimes science get brushed aside in the interest of politics," he says, noting that it is hard to turn the tide of public policy.

Despite their differences, both men can agree on one thing: the need for Americans to adopt a healthier diet.

"I think the positive message, in terms of both blood pressure and overall [heart] health, is people should pay attention to their overall diet," says Kotchen, adding that it is "probably a mistake" to focus exclusively on salt. He says we should avoid obesity, avoid eating too much salt, and make sure we eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

McCarron agrees. "The data say the most important thing to do is get a balanced diet," he says. "And we are doing a terrible job of that in this country -- the evidence is staring at us, walking down the street."

Sometimes it's not so easy to cut back on salt. "Most of the salt in the diet is hidden salt," says Kotchen. "It's not added from a salt shaker, but it's in products. Baked products and processed foods are generally very high in salt." He recommends that we look for sodium levels on food labels.

As for whether those guidelines will be changed when the Nutrition Committee meets next month, Kotchen says, "I suspect there will be no drastic change in the sodium recommendation."

Vital Information:

  • The American Heart Association recommends a healthy adult consume no more than six grams of salt each day. Research shows most Americans get about nine grams of salt a day.
  • Experts may disagree on the exact relationship between salt intake and one's blood pressure and how to counsel patients about it, but many feel that the importance of salt has been overemphasized.
  • Experts agree that there are other important contributors to consider, such as getting a balanced, low-fat diet that includes a lot of fruits and vegetables.
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