Jan. 22, 2010 -- Cutting U.S. salt intake by just half a teaspoon a day would prevent up to 92,000 deaths, 99,000 heart attacks, and 66,000 strokes -- a benefit as big as smoking cessation.
That's the prediction from computer models that used real clinical data to predict the effects of small reductions in salt intake.
"The [heart] benefits of reduced salt intake are on par with the benefits of population-wide reductions in tobacco use, obesity, and cholesterol levels," says Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD.
Cutting daily salt intake by a half teaspoon -- about 3 grams -- would not be enough to bring most Americans down to the goal of 3.7 grams a day recommended for about 70% of adults. It wouldn't even get us down to the 5.8 grams a day recommended for lowest-risk adults.
That's because the average U.S. man gets about 10.4 grams a day and the average U.S. woman gets about 7.3 grams a day.
But cutting back by 3 grams, or even just 1 gram, would have huge effects across the population, Bibbins-Domingo and colleagues find.
And here's the best part: To get the benefit, you don't have to do anything. Of course, there is a catch.
Food manufacturers would have to stop putting so much salt into processed foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 77% of the salt in the American diet comes from processed food. Only 6% is shaken out at the table, and only 5% is sprinkled during cooking.
Would we miss that salt in processed foods? Not if we're like the British.
"In the United Kingdom, a population-wide reduction in dietary salt of 10% was achieved in four years without a reduction in sales of the food products included in the initial effort and without consumer complaints about taste," Bibbins-Domingo and colleagues report.
There's more good news. Once people cut back on salt -- whether or not they know they are doing it -- they begin to prefer less salt in their food. This happens in a matter of weeks.