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Improve your health by reducing salt intake

SPRINGFIELD Salt is important for normal body functions, but too much salt isn't good for you so doctors recommend putting down that salt shaker. "Although salt is found in many foods, maintaining a low sodium diet will benefit your long-term health in a variety of ways," said Dr. Marc Schweiger, director, Cardiac Cath/Research in the Division of Cardiology at Baystate Medical Center. A high sodium diet becomes a big risk factor as people age, causing more day-to-day health concerns, as well as raising blood pressure and increasing the risks of heart disease. Hypertension, osteoporosis, kidney damage and stomach cancer have also been linked to high sodium in studies. The recent media exposure of high sodium diets in the American lifestyle and its effects on the heart comes during American Heart Month, celebrated in February, but every day is "heart day" at Baystate Medical Center, recently named one of the nation's top 100 hospitals for cardiovascular care by Thomson Reuters. According to a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, research shows shaving three grams off the daily salt intake of Americans could prevent up to 66,000 strokes, 99,000 heart attacks and 92,000 deaths each year in the United States, as well as save $24 billion in health costs. Americans eat an average of 3,436 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, despite dietary guidelines which recommend less than 2,300 mg, or about one teaspoon of salt, each day, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, reducing salt isn't as easy as just skipping the salt shaker. It's estimated between 70 and 80 percent of the average adult's sodium intake comes from processed foods, such as cheeses, sliced meats, sauces and frozen potatoes such as French fries. Many packaged sauces and spreads can contain as much as 1,283 milligrams of salt per 100 grams. While grocery shopping, it's important to keep in mind that foods containing more than 500 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams are considered high-sodium foods. Products with less than 120 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams are classified as low-sodium, according to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. But it's all relevant. For example, many cans of soup can contain over 1000 mg of sodium, and while some companies may claim "lower sodium" on their soup label at 480 mg, that is still a high number. When eating out, ask for the nutrition facts when possible because foods that were once frozen or canned are full of sodium. Asian cuisine should also be limited in your diet, thanks to the MSG and soy sauce that are so heavily used. "Prepare meals at home with as many fresh ingredients as you can," said Dr. Schweiger, "instead of relying on commercial products that contain salt and other sodium compounds." And, watching your sodium is becoming an increasingly popular trend. According to Mintel, a consumer, media and market research company, the number of new products which contained either low, no or reduced sodium rose 115 percent between 2005 and 2008. They predict that sodium reduced products are likely to be the next big health craze of the year, similar to low-fat and low-carb diets in the past although it may take a while for shoppers to really pick up on the trend since it's not the consumer who is driving the lower-sodium trend. Internationally, the United Kingdom and France already have worked with food industry leaders to find ways to heavily cut salt intake, and New York City and Australia are working to make similar changes. In fact, New York City's Health Department announced earlier this month that it is coordinating a nationwide effort to reduce salt content in packaged foods and in restaurants by 25 percent over the next five years. For tips on reducing your salt intake, visit the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute Web site at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/hbp and click on "treatments."

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