Should I Slash My Salt Intake?

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The internist says:
Donna Sweet, MD, Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita

High-sodium foods increase blood pressure—whether youre among the one in three Americans who has hypertension or not. Thats why the new federal dietary guidelines recommend lowering sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day from the 3,400 milligrams most of us eat daily. If you already have hypertension, the recommendation is 1,500 milligrams a day, since research shows theres a substantial drop in blood pressure when you reduce sodium intake to that amount.

We could all stand to try. Im not going to tell someone with normal blood pressure to cut sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day—yes, its ridiculously low. But I do think we should all be eating less than 2,300 milligrams and definitely no more than 3,000. Just because your BP is normal now doesnt mean it will be forever—your risk of hypertension increases dramatically with age.

Its easier than you think. If you eat a lot of anything, your taste buds become desensitized to it. People who have a lot of spicy food, for instance, become desensitized to hot peppers. Studies show if you cut back on high-sodium foods, you eventually dont need as much to make food taste good. In fact, after about a month—the amount of time it takes to retrain your taste buds—you wont even miss it.

The dietitian says:
Joan Salge Blake, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and professor of nutrition at Boston University

It depends on your numbers. If your blood pressure is low—and some people are just genetically predisposed to having low BP—you dont need to radically cut back on sodium. But that doesnt mean you should start eating more salt; 2,300 milligrams is still a good target. (Talk to your doctor, of course, if youre experiencing side effects like lightheadedness or fainting, which could mean your blood pressures dangerously low.)

Salt also affects your waistline. Sodiums like a dry sponge; it attracts water. The more of it you consume, the greater your risk of water retention and uncomfortable bloating. Plus, getting too much salt may mean youre not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium and good for your heart and your weight.

Cutting back on sodium-filled restaurant foods helps a lot. Try ordering entrees with more vegetables and less meat, like pizza with peppers instead of pepperoni—youll get more fiber, lots of flavor, and less salt. And watch out for sauces and marinades, which can be high in sodium.

Our advice:
Know your numbers. If you have low or normal blood pressure (120/80 or less), keep your intake at 2,300 milligrams a day. If your BPs high (140/80 or higher), try to lower sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams, which is actually the American Heart Associations recommended upper-limit intake for everyone. A good starting point: Cook fresh, whole foods at home. No one expects you to reach the 1,500 mark—or even 2,300—overnight, but for most people any reduction is better than none.