Hold the Salt

Substitute with a dash of herbs.

| February/March 1996


Americans have an enormous appetite for salt. The average American consumes more than a tablespoon daily, much of which comes from processed foods such as ham, cheese, canned goods and frozen dinners. Many people lavishly add extra salt at the table as a matter of habit.

In recent years, Americans have been advised to cut back on their salt intake—along with sugar, fat and many other ingredients that carry a lot of ­flavor. It may come as a surprise to learn that sodium, which constitutes 40 percent of sodium chloride, has an essential role in the body’s healthy functioning.

“Sodium is as important to good health as water and air,” says Kathy Wein, a clinical dietitian at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s a micronutrient of high nutritional significance, which plays a major role in maintaining blood volume and blood pressure. Sodium acts on the body by attracting and holding water in the blood vessels and helps transmit nerve impulses, as well as contract and expand muscle fibers. It also plays an important role in the metabolism of protein and carbohydrates.

Nevertheless, too much sodium can cause the body to retain fluid, increasing the volume of blood and the workload of the arteries. As a result, blood pressure rises. In some people with high blood pressure, reducing sodium in the diet can lower blood pressure; other people don’t experience this benefit. Even those in good health, however, may find that cutting back on salt can reduce water retention and bloating. The National Institutes of Health, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and other public-health organizations currently recommend that a person with normal blood pressure limit total sodium intake to no more than 2400 milligrams per day, equivalent to about 1½ teaspoons of salt.

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