DEAR DR. BLONZ: My husband has high blood pressure and is watching his salt intake. He doesn’t want me to add salt to our food, and he thinks he is being careful. But I am concerned about the hidden sodium in processed foods. How many milligrams of sodium are there in a teaspoon of salt? And how much should he be having per day? -- M.D., Berkeley, California
DEAR M.D.: There are approximately 2,325 milligrams of sodium in one teaspoon of salt. The Daily Value -- the set of nutritional guidelines developed for food labels -- uses an upper limit of 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. The average sodium intake in the United States is between 4,000 and 5,000 milligrams per day.
The main concern about excess salt stems from its association with hypertension, or high blood pressure, which currently affects 1 out of every 3 adults. Hypertension is defined as blood pressure readings higher than 140 over 90. The first number (140, in this case) is the measure of the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts, and the second number (90) is the pressure in the arteries as the heart relaxes between beats.
Hypertension is called the “silent killer” because there are no warning signs until problems such as heart disease, stroke, or kidney disease have already developed. The only reliable way to find out whether you have hypertension is to have regular blood pressure checks.
If your husband has high blood pressure and has been placed on a low-salt diet, you are correct in being concerned about hidden sodium. With the exception of sugar, we add more salt to our foods than any other condiment. About 10 percent of the salt we eat is naturally present in foods; 15 percent is added during cooking and at the table. That means 75 percent of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods.
Salt is added to processed food for a number of reasons. It can slow the growth of certain microorganisms; before refrigeration, salting was the only practical way to keep meat and fish from spoiling. Salt can also play a role in food texture: Processed meats such as bologna, hot dogs and lunch meats contain higher levels of salt because it helps form and maintain the gel-like consistency of these foods. Then, of course, there is salt’s role as a flavor enhancer. Salt can be delicious, but the key is to learn to enjoy foods’ natural flavors, not that which comes from the salt shaker.
There is definitely a relationship between salt intake and high blood pressure, but not everyone with high blood pressure will benefit to the same degree when reducing their intake of sodium. Research tells us that the most reliable way to help reduce elevated blood pressure is to lose excess weight, increase activity and decrease alcohol consumption. (Be sure to check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.)
There have been impressive numbers coming out of the DASH studies (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), showing how blood pressure can also be lowered by decreasing sodium intake and following a diet that’s low in total and saturated fat but rich in fruits, vegetables and dairy. Not surprisingly, the DASH diet was named again as the best overall diet (tinyurl.com/3j57mmw).
As regards processed foods, check the Nutrition Facts label to see the milligrams of sodium per serving. I suggest you begin making note of the processed foods you and your husband eat and keeping track of how much sodium they contain.
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