How much salt is too much?

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How much salt is too much?
Areport in the February 2013 issue of the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension states that as many as a half a million American lives could be saved if those people ate a fraction of a teaspoon of salt less every day. According to this study, decreasing salt consumption gradually over a decade decreases the risk of heart disease and hypertension and thus can prolong the lives of between 280,000 and 500,000 people.

Americans ingest, on an average, 3,600 mg of sodium (contained in salt) daily, compared with 1,500 mg recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA. According to the study, cutting salt intake down to 2,200 mg, which is still 700 mg more than the recommended dosage is enough to make a positive difference to health.

Table or dietary salt consists of sodium chloride. Sodium is found in every cell of our body. The balance between sodium and other ions regulates the pressure of cells and is related to blood pressure. Sodium makes blood vessels less able to expand and contract and can toughen heart cells. The quantity of sodium we ingest is thus critical towards maintaining good health.

3 gm of salt contains 1,200 mg of sodium. To calculate the amount of sodium in salt, multiply 0.393 times the mass of the salt to get the mass of sodium (39.3 per cent of the amount of salt comes from sodium).

Food items like beetroot, celery and milk contain naturally occurring sodium. Drinking water also contains sodium, with the quantum depending on the source of the water.

Food ingredients such as monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite or nitrate, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sodium saccharin, sodium bicarbonate and sodium benzoate contain sodium. Sodium is found in high quantity in processed meats such as bacon, sausage, ham, and in canned soups and vegetables. Sodium is present in butter, margarine, milk, bread, ready biscuits, amongst other foods. Fast foods like pizzas and burgers are very high in sodium.

So, an increase in the consumption of sodium is not only due to the quantity of dietary salt we consume, but also the quantity of sodium in the processed foods that people eat. Sodium can be found in almost every food item that is sold today, and regular intake of these foods, in quantity, leads to a buildup of sodium.

According to cardiologist K Srinath Reddy, the World Health Organization has set a target of consuming 5 gm of salt a day, yet an average Indian consumes 9-10 gm per day. The sodium potassium ratio in our body is important for stroke mortality. Potassium can be found in fruits and vegetables. Indians are at higher risk for strokes because they consume low potassium and high sodium because of their salt intake.

The sodium content in salt causes high blood pressure or hypertension. 57 per cent of deaths due to strokes and 24 per cent of deaths caused by heart attacks in India are attributed to salt consumption. S Sharma, director of the preventive health programme, of Max Healthcare, New Delhi, says that just by reducing salt consumption, India can reduce incidents of stroke by 25 per cent and heart attacks by 10 per cent.

In the longest investigation ever undertaken to study the effects of salt on cardiovascular health, researchers from the Harvard Medical School proved that a diet rich in sodium increased the risk of heart attack and that by following a low salt diet, the risk of cardiac arrest and stroke was reduced by 25 per cent and that of chances of premature death by 20 per cent.

Anoop Mishra of Fortis Hospital, New Delhi, says that the factors contributing to the increase in salt intake by Indians include ‘richer’ foods associated with higher income levels as well as eating out, particularly the fast-food culture which invariably increases intake of salty and fatty foods.

Reduction of salt consumption by the entire population by only 15 per cent would avert up to 8.5 million deaths in 23 high-burden countries over 10 years. Salt restriction does not only prevent cardiovascular morbidities, but also has the power to reduce obesity and diabetes.

It is easy to reduce sodium intake. Read the labels on any processed food items before buying them. Avoid buying processed food items as far as possible. If you have to, then ensure you choose foods that are low in sodium. Buy unsalted snacks, consume fresh vegetables, not canned, and eliminate salt from your recipes by replacing it with lemon juice and pepper. zz

(The writer is the owner of wellness centre Back to the Basics and the author of The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!)

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