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Salt: What is it? Why is it important? And how is it affecting your health?

Earlier this week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a nationwide, voluntary initiative to reduce sodium (also known as salt) in the American diet by decreasing the amount added to manufactured and commercially prepared foods. This has sparked a new round in the ever-going salt debate, leaving many to wonder; what is salt? Why is it so important? And how is it affecting our health?

The FDA's lofty goal is set to cut salt levels by an average of 12% over the next 2.5 years in foods ranging from packaged meats and cheeses, to your dinner entree at the local diner down the street. All in an attempt to make a serious dent in growing public health issues such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and more.

The agency wants to cut sodium intake to an average of 3,000 milligrams (mg) per day, compared to the current average of 3,400 mg. This is still well above the recommended amount of 2,300 mg per day for anyone above the age of 14 years old but, it's an amicable step in the right direction compared to many failed attempts over the past 40 years to reduce sodium intake. These previous attempts have all focused on the individual consumer, and not on the manufacturers and processors of food themselves. According to the FDA, "more than 70 percent of total sodium intake is from sodium added during food manufacturing and commercial food preparation." So- what's the big deal?

Chips, dips, french fries, pretzels. These types of popular foods all have something in common—tons of salt. For example, just one grilled Artisan chicken sandwich from Mcdonalds' contains 1110mg of sodium! Besides providing a pleasant, salty taste- salt also enhances foods' natural sweetness and flavor, hides unpleasant flavors, and provides a more balanced taste to your palate. Food can also be enhanced by adding more herbs, spices, and types of vinegar but, salt has become a cheap and easy way to make food taste better. And it's been going on for years.

About 5,000 years ago humans started adding salt to their diet. Before then, we only consumed salt naturally occurring in food. We discovered that salt we could add to our diet (which is most commonly referred to as table salt and contains 40% sodium and 60% chloride) was a great preservative, could be used in first-aid and, made food even yummier. From this point on, salt became a hot commodity and its importance hasn't slowed yet.

Besides being a cornerstone in the human diet for the past 5,000 years, salt is also essential for survival. Salt is used in the body to help balance fluid levels and maintain healthy blood pressure. It is also essential for nerve and muscle functioning. Living a life devoid of all salt is impossible (you would die!). Therefore, as long as you maintain a healthy amount of salt in your diet, there are zero adverse health effects. The health problems seem to occur when you consume too much salt for a prolonged period of time.

As mentioned above, healthy amounts of salt help balance our blood pressure. Eating too much salt can disturb this balance, causing sodium levels in the blood to increase. An increase in sodium levels in the blood causes water retention and increases both the fluid surrounding cells and your blood volume in the bloodstream. As blood volume increases, so does the pressure on blood vessels, causing your heart to work harder to move blood throughout your body. Over time, this additional strain can lead to stiffening of blood vessels and increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Due to the prevalence of high blood pressure in American adults (in 2017 alone, nearly 103 million adults in the United States were diagnosed with high blood pressure) and the myriad of health conditions that can occur from high blood pressure, it's no wonder why the FDA is taking such extreme measures to crack down on the amount of sodium in our food supply. In the meantime, here are five ways you can crack down on your own salt intake at home and while eating out, thereby reducing your risk of developing, or worsening, serious health conditions:

  1. Request that all salad dressings and condiments be served on the side, so you can limit the amount that gets added to your food.

  2. Instead of fries, or other salty sides, order fresh options like seasonal fruit, steamed veggies (you can request no salt be added during preparation), or salad.

  3. When preparing sandwiches at home, opt for lean, fresh cuts of meat and poultry instead of processed, packaged lunch meats.

  4. Purchase low sodium condiments, chips, crackers, etc. at the grocery store. Luckily, most of these items are highly advertised as being "low sodium", so they're easy to pick out. However, with a quick glance at the nutrition facts, you can keep your sodium intake low on most items.

  5. Ethnic foods are often the most difficult to control when it comes to sodium. When dining at a Chinese restaurant, ask for your food to be steamed and have your sauce on the side. For Mexican food, choose items that don't have added sauces or queso (or request them to not be added). Italian, German, and even Indian food- it's best to keep your portions small and perhaps have a healthy snack at home before you go out to control your appetite.

In conclusion, if you have normal blood pressure and maintain a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle, then the FDA recommendations for optimal salt intake may not apply to you, however- there are no risk factors in decreasing the amount of salt you consume, and overall less salt in the American diet will mean improved health for the vast majority and potentially less hypertension and other serious health issues that are plaguing American communities today.

If you feel like you do consume too much salt in your current diet and need help developing habits specifically geared to reducing your sodium intake, please reach out to the St. Andrew's Family Fitness Plus's Fitness Department by filling out the Starting Point Questionnaire.

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