For decades I’ve made spaghetti sauce for family and friends. Twenty or so years ago I noticed that the day after the meal I’d gained a few pounds and was unusually thirsty. I was perplexed until I learned the canned tomatoes, pastes, and purees I was using were high in salt. Here I was, a cardiologist, and I hadn’t made the connection. Excess salt contributes to water retention, and that was my problem. Of course, too much salt also contributes to high blood pressure. I quickly changed my ways.
The average adult consumes the equivalent of nearly two teaspoons of salt a day—practically two times the upper limit for good health. The majority of that excess salt is hidden in processed foods, such as canned spaghetti sauces, canned and packaged soups preapared pizza crusts, fast food chicken, and sauerkraut.
I’ll never forget a patient of mine with high blood pressure who ate his fill of canned ham (packed with salt) on Easter Sunday. The next day he was in the emergency room with a hypertensive high blood pressure crisis and acute heart failure. His was an extraordinary situation, but it underscores the need to be careful with hidden salt intake.
Here are some things you need to know about salt consumption and high blood pressure:
- Your body requires sodium (a component of salt) to regulate fluid balance and distribution, as well as nerve and muscle cell function. Although you need some sodium, the standard diet includes way too much.
- Aim for less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day (2/3 of a teaspoon of table salt), not the 2,400 mg most cardiologists recommend. Don’t use salt from the shaker, and read labels to add up the amount you’re taking in. Check the sidebar at right for a list of salt-heavy foods.
- Watch the restaurant menus—many food items, especially in fast food restaurants, are high in salt.
- Cook with fresh herbs and spices, instead of salt. Try such seasonings as basil, garlic, oregano, rosemary, chives, parsley, and onion. Not only are they sodium-free, these flavorings contain natural substances that are good for your health.