Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New U.S. Dietary Guidelines Crack Down on Salt Consumption

In both Canada and the U.S., you could say that salt consumption is out of control. Diets high in sodium are a major cause of hypertension (high blood pressure) which can have no symptoms but can lead to heart disease, stroke and even sudden death. Now, to the surprise of many health and nutrition experts, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have re-vamped the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reflect the seriousness of this issue.

Not a lot of young people give much thought to chronic disease prevention, but high blood pressure isn't just a concern for older individuals; the wheels of chronic disease progression are set in motion far before people end up with chronic diseases in middle age, through poor diet and lifestyle choices. The new dietary guidelines encourage people to eat more fruits, vegetables and "nutrient-dense" foods, which most people can wrap their heads around, but cutting down on salt might be easier said than done.

Sodium isn't something we can always see. In fact, the salt that we add to our food is often the smallest contributor to our daily sodium intake. Most of the sodium we consume is hidden in packaged foods or those prepared outside the home; we're so used to it that we can't even tell it's there. In the U.S. and Canada, eating in restaurants or ordering take out is something of an epidemic as a result of busy schedules and 'no time' to cook. So how can you cut down on sodium if you don't know how much is in that pizza slice?

Regardless, the new sodium recommendations have been tightened to reflect the current best practice standards in medicine, that is, people 51 and older, African-Americans and people suffering from chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease should cut their daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams - not quite half a teaspoon. Everyone else can eat up to 2,300 milligrams a day, but it is advised that they also aim for 1,500 milligrams per day if possible. Unfortunately, the average American consumes over twice that amount per day.

So, until food producers and restaurateurs start cutting back on how much salt they throw in the mix of their recipes, consumers will simply have to revert to reading nutrition labels (when available) in order to know what they are putting into their bodies. So really, does it make a difference that the advice has changed if the situation for the average consumer has not improved? Progress is good, but more still needs to be done before high sodium intakes and poor eating habits can become a thing of the past.