For Immediate Release
June 14, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

It's Time to Get Savvy About Sodium

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

Chances are there is too much salt in your diet, and that salt may be slowly killing you.

So says a report released recently by the Institute of Medicine, which calls for dramatic reductions in American salt consumption over the next few years.

The concern focuses on the dangerous link between dietary salt and high blood pressure, a silent disease that currently affects about one-third of all American adults. Unless it is detected early and effectively treated, high blood pressure can severely damage a person’s heart, brain, blood vessels and kidneys, leading eventually to death.

High blood pressure is one of the most common diseases in Kansas, with the number of new cases increasing steadily in the past decade. By age 65, nearly 6 in 10 Kansans are now diagnosed with high blood pressure. Nationally, only about half of those with the disease are able to control it effectively with medications.

Treatment for high blood pressure is starting to improve, but preventing it altogether is the best option for saving lives and keeping health care costs affordable.

But how can we prevent a disease that has become a serious epidemic?

The answer is found in changing the ways we eat. There is now ample evidence that as the salt in your diet increases, so does the risk of bumping up your blood pressure.

And the consumption of salt, the main source of the element sodium in our diets, has risen sharply in recent years to levels far above what’s safe for most people.

Dietary guidelines call for an intake of no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day. For people over 40 years of age, and certain others at high risk for elevated blood pressure, the recommendation is just 1500 milligrams per day.

Today the average American consumes more than 3400 milligrams each day. More than 90 percent of Americans are taking in more dietary sodium than they should.

The new report says that if daily sodium consumption could be cut to 2400 milligrams – just above the higher target level – about 100,000 lives could be saved in America every year. At the same time, the economy could save about $18 billion annually in treatment costs for high blood pressure.

Cutting our salt intake to more healthy levels would slash the country’s heart disease mortality by 21 percent and reduce deaths from stroke by 37 percent. Apart from deterring young people from smoking cigarettes, nothing else we could do to reduce the burden of chronic diseases would have as much positive impact as cutting down the salt in everyone’s diet.

So if you agree that reducing salt consumption is a good idea, what can you do about it?

Should you throw away the salt shaker at your dinner table? Should you stop adding salt when cooking at home?

You could do those things, but together they probably account for just 10 percent of all the sodium in your diet. Naturally occurring sodium in the common foods you eat makes up only another 10 percent or so.

Then where is the heavy load of sodium in our diets coming from?

The shocking fact about dietary sodium is that about 80 percent of it is completely hidden. It has been added to the processed foods you eat and the meals you enjoy when eating out in restaurants.

It’s this concealed sodium that lies at the heart of the crisis in high blood pressure. Only when the added salt is engineered out of these foods will Americans see significant reductions in their sodium consumption and a commensurate drop in high blood pressure.

The new report outlines strategies for phasing in reductions in sodium levels in the food supply. These steps will require regulatory action by the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. But voluntary efforts by the food industry will also play a role.

To date, four of the nation’s 10 leading food processors have committed to reducing sodium in their products by 25 percent in the next few years. Restaurant chains are also looking at voluntary measures to lower the salt content in their menu lines.

These are positive steps in the right direction, but if you want to lower the sodium in your family’s diet right away, here are some things to consider:

The epidemic of high blood pressure will begin to pass in coming years, as government and industry work together to solve the problem of excess salt in our food supply. But if you want to beat the odds on developing high blood pressure now, aim for a healthy weight, increase your physical activity, avoid excess alcohol and get savvy about sodium.

A low-sodium lifestyle. Now that’s an idea worth its salt.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.