PUBLISHED: 11:59 AM on Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Salt: A little essence, not a lot
Individuals pursuing careers in family and consumer sciences or serving as extension home economists are required to take nutrition and health courses as part of their degree programs.

In my undergraduate years, one of the activities the nutrition professor assigned was tracking our salt (or sodium) consumption over a three-day period.

The majority of the students in the class were studying to be health care providers or dietitian, so dietary therapy as it related to health including diabetes, hypertension and cancer was an important topic area.

Results from this exercise found that the majority of participating students exceeded the daily sodium intake as set forth in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Key recommendations are to consume less than 2,300 mg (approximately 1 tsp. of salt) of sodium per day. Why was it so easy for us to exceed this amount?

The sample foods featured in the following table provide some idea.

According to this information, you can see that if you have two slices of bread with breakfast, a glass of milk, salad dressing on your salad with a bowl of tomato soup for lunch and a handful (or less) of potato chips as a mid-afternoon snack, you have already consumed (at the high end of the range) almost 2,500 mg of sodium. Plus, you haven't eaten dinner.

What's the health risk of consuming too much salt?

According to information provided through the Department of Health and Human Services, the higher an individual's salt intake, the higher an individual's blood pressure.

Elevated blood pressure increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, heart failure, and kidney disease.

The human body needs salt to function. Sodium helps carry nutrients into the body's cells, regulates blood pressure and fluid volume, and works on the lining of blood vessels to keep the pressure balance normal.

However, the amount of sodium needed by the body is minor. Plus, while we're on the subject, findings from the Mayo Clinic report no nutritional differences in table salt, sea salt and kosher salt. The difference in these types of salt primarily concerns their taste and texture.

For individuals diagnosed with high blood pressure, as well as for others who want to monitor their salt consumption, reducing daily salt intake may be a bit more challenging than opting not to use the salt shaker at meal time.

On average, the natural salt content of food accounts for about 10 percent of total intake, while discretionary salt use (salt added at the table or during cooking) provides another 5 to 10 percent of total intake.

What some people may not realize is that a whopping 75 percent of the sodium consumed is in processed foods.

As with all things in life, moderation is the key. Studies have found that even modestly reducing how much sodium you consume can reduce your blood pressure. Here are some tips:

• Calculate your sodium consumption. Use a food diary to estimate how much sodium you consume each day. You may be surprised at how much you're taking in. I know I was. Aim for 1,500 - 2,400 mg/day. Individuals with hypertension and those with specific needs should consult a medical professional.

• Don't add salt. Experiment with herbs and spices to add more flavor to your foods.

• Ease into it. If you don't feel like you can drastically reduce your sodium consumption suddenly, cut back gradually. Your palate will adjust over time.

• Read food labels. Look at the sodium content before you buy. If possible, choose low-sodium alternatives.

Even some foods you may think are healthy, such as some vegetable juices, may contain surprisingly high amounts of sodium.

• Eat fewer processed foods. Potato chips, frozen dinners and cured meats, such as bacon and processed luncheon meats, are high in sodium.

• Eat more fresh foods. Fruits, vegetables and unprocessed grains contain little sodium.

Monitoring salt intake is not a drastic change in daily life for most people and the activity offers significant rewards.

When your blood pressure is under control, your risk of life-threatening complications, such as heart attack and stroke, decreases and you may live a longer and happier life.

Dr. Koukel is the Juneau District Agent for the Home Economics Programs of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.