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Stroke Smart Magazine

November/December 2007

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Salt: How Much is too Much?

by Pete Lewis

If you've had a stroke, there's a good chance that you have also been told to cut back on salt.

Dietary salt, also called sodium, is linked to stroke because it can increase blood pressure. Salt causes our blood vessels to constrict or tighten up. When vessels constrict, blood has less room to flow, and blood pressure increases. Reducing the amount of salt in your diet may be an effective strategy for lowering your blood pressure.

Most Americans eat far more salt than their bodies need. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that Americans consume no more than 2,300 mgs (one teaspoon) of salt a day. Older adults, African Americans, Native Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure or diabetes should limit salt to 1,500 mg (3/4 teaspoon) a day.

The easiest ways to cut back on salt are also the most obvious:

  • Avoid salty snacks like chips and peanuts.
  • Taste your food before reaching for the salt shaker.
  • Try to season foods with spices and herbs instead of salt.

Some older adults use too much salt because our sense of taste diminishes with age.

“Old habits are hard to break, but people need to learn to eat foods by themselves or to enhance their food with something other than salt,” said Jo Ann Pegues, a registered dietician at the Center for African American Health, in Denver, Colo. “Try to substitute herbs or spices, lemon or garlic for salt.”

However, the real danger is not in your salt shaker. Only six percent of the salt that Americans consume is sprinkled on food at the dinner table. Five percent is added during cooking. Most of the salt that we eat every day, about 77 percent, comes from processed foods and foods prepared by restaurants.

We don't even consider many high-salt foods to be “salty.” Frozen pizza, canned beans and soups, fast-food chicken and hamburgers, Chinese food, salsa and hot sauce, even tomato juice, all contain a lot of salt.

“You have to read and understand labels,” Pegues said. “A label on a can of soup may say that there is 750 mg of salt per serving, but you have to remember that the can contains two and half servings.”

Pegues said older people who live alone and people with limited financial resources often eat a lot of canned foods that contain a lot of salt. She suggested that if canned food is something you can't avoid, then be sure to look for those marked “low salt,” or switch to frozen vegetables, which generally contain less salt than canned vegetables.


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