Watch out for these eight secretly supersalty foods to avoid sodium overload.
But even though the average American blows past both limits, consuming an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, some experts say that's not a problem for most men. "I don't know of any evidence that suggests that healthy men with normal blood pressure should reduce their sodium intake," says Michael Alderman, M.D., a professor of medicine at Yeshiva University.
For starters, reducing the salt content of your diet could adversely affect your health, Dr. Alderman says. In a study review published in the Journal of Hypertension, people who reduced their sodium intake by about 1,000 milligrams experienced lower blood pressure, but also higher heart rates and decreased insulin sensitivity, which can raise diabetes risk. Because of these effects, he says, we need clinical trials to determine whether lowering salt intake actually improves health outcomes in the general population.
And let's not forget that sodium isn't the only blood-pressure booster. "The huge message everyone overlooks is that being overweight also contributes to high blood pressure," says Spano.
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Can anything I eat counteract the effect of salt on my BP?
Quick biology lesson: Your body is constantly balancing the sodium on the outside of each cell and the potassium on the inside. A 2006 statement from the American Heart Association in the journal Hypertension revealed that an increase in potassium can lower blood pressure just as much as a decrease in sodium can. Even the Institute of Medicine doesn't deny this: "The sodium:potassium ratio is typically more closely associated with blood pressure than with intake of either substance alone."
Unfortunately, supersalty processed meals tend to crowd out our main dietary sources of potassium—fresh fruits and vegetables. Nutrition surveys reveal that younger men consume only about 60 percent to 70 percent of the recommended daily intake: 4,700 milligrams of potassium. Imagine the effect on our blood pressure levels if fast-food cashiers always asked, "You want broccoli with that?"
Should I cut back on salt when I cook?
Tossing some salt into your pasta water isn't likely to send your blood pressure soaring. That's because 77 percent of the sodium in the average diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 12 percent of sodium is naturally occurring in foods, and just 5 percent comes from home cooking.
So there's no need to ban salt from your house or buy an additive-laden salt substitute—especially since salt is an important seasoning and the only natural source of that basic taste, says Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking. After all, our brains evolved to crave salt because it's necessary for survival, says Leslie Stein, Ph.D., a senior research associate at Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. Salt creates a fuller mouthfeel when you eat, while suppressing bitterness and releasing sweetness. In fact, without a decent hit of salt, many foods would taste flat, not flavorful. It's also essential in the chemistry of baking, says Stein. Stick with kosher salt for cooking and try flaky sea salt for finishing a dish; both types are free of additives.
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Why are so many processed foods packed with salt?
Sure, salt makes food taste good. But that's not the only reason fast-food meals and processed foods are laced with it.
For starters, people become hooked on the flavor profile of familiar products, says Howard Moskowitz, Ph.D., a food scientist and cofounder of the journal Chemical Senses. "They've become accustomed to this richer, deeper taste due to salt. Take out the salt, and people will complain and stop buying the product."
Salt also masks off-flavors created during the production of processed foods while acting as a preservative and improving texture and color. And let's face it, where else can a $600 billion industry find an ingredient that can do so much, so cheaply? Whether or not salt itself is dangerous for you, it can definitely run with a bad crowd.