In February 2005 the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, sued the federal government for failure to act on the evidence that salt kills 150,000 Americans each year. The average American consumes 4,000 milligrams a day. Government spokesmen recommend salt levels below 2,300 milligrams (1 teaspoon) a day. The American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg a day.
Excess salt intake raises blood pressure in some people by expanding blood volume. However, before you go out and try to avoid all salt, realize that your body needs some salt and severe salt restriction can be harmful. Severe salt restriction causes high blood pressure by causing the adrenal glands to release large amounts of aldosterone and the kidneys to release renin. Both hormones constrict arteries to cause high blood pressure. People on salt-wasting diuretics should also not try to restrict salt because they would then be at high risk for salt deficiency. Athletes have to be very cautions about salt restriction. Since sweat contains huge amounts of salt, athletes who restrict salt are in danger of developing fatigue, muscle damage and cramps caused by low salt levels.
If you have high blood pressure and are not on diuretics that drain salt from your body, it is reasonable to restrict salt. If you are a regular exerciser and feel tired or become injured, have your doctor draw blood levels of salt. You may find that you need to increase your intake of salt, particularly during exercise in warm weather. If you do not have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or other risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, there is little evidence that you will benefit from severe salt restriction. However, future research may change this recommendation. Processed foods and fast-food restaurant fare contribute almost 80 percent of the salt to the American diet, and a healthful diet is low in these foods.
Nutrition Action Newsletter, February 2005
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