March 11, 2009 -- You'd better start reading the sodium amounts on food packages.
If Americans reduced their salt intake by just 1 gram per day, there would be 250,000 fewer new cases of heart disease and 200,000 fewer deaths in a decade. These new statistics, announced at the American Heart Association's Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, were calculated through a computer simulation of heart disease among adults in the U.S.
"A very modest decrease in the amount of salt -- hardly detectable in the taste of food -- can have dramatic health benefits for the U.S.," study researcher Kirsten Bibbins‑Domingo, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, says in a news release. "It was a surprise to see the magnitude of the impact on the population, given the very small reductions in salt we were modeling."
The health improvements could be particularly meaningful for African-Americans, who are more likely to have high blood pressure and whose blood pressure may be more sensitive to salt. The study found that a 3-gram per day reduction in salt among all Americans would result in 6% fewer new cases of heart disease and 3% fewer deaths. Among African-Americans, there would be a 10% reduction in new cases of heart disease and a 6% reduction in deaths. Three grams per day is equivalent to 1,200 milligrams of sodium.
Despite evidence that salt intake is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease, Americans have continued to increase their salt intake during the last few decades, according to the researchers. Salt consumption is up about 50% since the 1970s.
Americans on average eat 9 to 12 grams of salt per day, or 3,600 to 4,800 milligrams of sodium. Most health organizations recommend 5 to 6 grams of salt per day, which is 2,000 to 2,400 milligrams of sodium. Two and a half grams of salt provide 1 gram of sodium.
Researchers called for changes in the food industry. "It's clear that we need to lower salt intake, but individuals find it hard to make substantial cuts because most salt comes from processed foods, not from the salt shaker," says Bibbins-Domingo. "Our study suggests that the food industry and those who regulate it could contribute substantially to the health of the nation by achieving even small reductions in the amount of salt in these processed foods."