So it's not heart disease or cancer that's killing so many of us – it's salt. More Americans are dying a slow, sodium-based death than other, more infamous diseases combined, according to experts.
"Worldwide, added salt almost certainly is killing more people than AIDS, malaria, terrorism, obesity, high cholesterol and tobacco … Yes, we like the taste of salt, but is it to die for," asked James J. Kenney, registered dietician, nutrition research specialist, and author of continuing-education courses at foodandhealth.com.
The problem is not so much the salt itself, but the secondary problems excess consumption can produce, such as hypertensive (HTN), gastric ulcers, and certain cancers. The Institute of Medicine recommends healthy adults younger than fifty years of age consume a diet rich in potassium and low in salt, keeping sodium intake between 3.8 and 5.8 grams (or just under a teaspoon) per day. For those at higher risk for hypertension – African-Americans, those over fifty, and those suffering from chronic conditions, like diabetes and kidney disease – daily consumption should be even less.
According to the Texas Heart Institute, 72 million Americans have hypertensive, or high blood pressure, and as many as 20 million do not even realize it. Genetics may predispose one to hypertension, of course, but several risk factors dramatically increase chances of being diagnosed with the condition. Obesity, physical inactivity, diets high in saturated fats, smoking, diabetes and more than moderate drinking – all health hazards in the Texas population – raise the likelihood of developing high blood pressure. This is only exacerbated by the typical American diet, which is usually sodium lacced in excess.
In fact, Texas may prove to be at higher risk than most states, as conditions either produced or aggravated by high-salt diets and hypertension abound. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, a whooping ninety-six percent of women are considered at least "moderate" drinkers, and men show similar tendencies. Texas also boasts the twelfth highest rate of adult obesity, at 24.6%, and the fourth highest rate of high-school aged obesity, at 13.9%. One out of three children in the state is overweight or obese, as are two out of three adults. Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio even made the American Obesity Society's "Top 10 Overweight Cities" list. Houston is number one, and Austin does not show much healthier statistics than its fellows.
Texas also ranks eleventh for the highest number of diabetics, at just over eight percent of the population. The Lone Star state's problem with diabetes, and, for that matter, with hypertension, may not, however, be independent of its obesity epidemic. These conditions are often seen in conjunction with one another and the New England Journal of Medicine has disclosed that diseases associated with obesity are rising at the same rate as obesity itself. In other words, obesity may be the main culprit in these other diseases' increasing rates – probably aggravated by diets high in sodium and saturated fats. Since this condition iscondition is seen more in lower income groups, and twenty-five percent of the state's population is living without health insurance, appropriate screenings and treatments may be less accessible to low-income, obese patients. These factors combine to create a boiling cauldron of volatile health care problems, waiting to explode. As more and more children become overweight and learn bad eating habits – including, many times, diets high in sodium – that cauldron just becomes bigger and more threatening.
"The added weight of the obesity epidemic to our already ailing health system is causing it to burst at the seams. [Obesity is] leading to escalating disease rates and costs," commented Shelley A. Hearne, DrPH and Executive Director of the Trust for America's Health.
The average American diet reflects precisely the inverse of sodium and potassium recommendations, which is almost certainly part of the problem. Ninety-five percent of American men, and seventy-five percent of American women, devour salt far in excess of the upper-recommended limits. Foods rich in potassium, like dried fruits, sardines, and baked potatoes with skins are simply not on most of our daily menus. Bananas, although one of the only popular high-potassium foods, have a better chance of making it in our bellies than the others, but a few bananas here and there do not even begin to cover our potassium needs.
Britain's Food Standards Agency has launched an initiative with manufacturers to voluntarily reformulate processed and fast foods to reduce sodium content. The United States has not yet done this, but our collective health would benefit by following suit.
Dr. Nicolaos E. Madias, professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center, thinks so. "To be successful, salt reduction should occur gradually, focus on educating both the public and health-care professionals, and secure the collaboration of public-health agencies with the food industry, since about eighty percent of food salt is the result of food processing . "
Madias looks to ancient diet habits to help explain the situation. "Contemporary populations, such as the Yanomamo Indians in the Amazon, the Bushmen in Botswana and the Eskimos in Alaska, have essentially no hypertension or age-related increases in their blood pressure. in salt, much like the diet our ancestors ate. "
Perhaps, then, our cultures are changing much faster than our bodies. After millions of years devoid of processed foods and excess salt, human anatomy is showing the wear-and-tear that is the inevitable result of abusing it with food. Occasionally, we will suffer for our poor choices, as we always do. I, for one, would think it a pity if, for all the much more entertaining, poorer choices I could have made, too much salt took me out.
Who wants to die from too much salt? Now that you know the latest studies, you may want to change your diet. Being aware of research that could affect your lifestyle decisions is an important part of taking care of yourself and your loved ones.