Health Team

Doctors: Leave the Salt Shaker on the Table

Posted December 13, 2007 5:22 p.m. EST
Updated December 13, 2007 10:48 p.m. EST

If you are about to sit down for dinner, leave the salt shaker alone. Between 20 and 30 percent of Americans have high blood pressure, and doctors suspect too much salt or sodium in the diet is a major cause.

The Food and Drug Administration has considered placing limits on sodium in packaged foods. Some individuals, though, have taken action on their own and committed themselves to a low-sodium diet.

Ann Meyer and Barry Loftin are in the same class at WakeMed for heart patients. She has six heart stents, and he just had triple bypass surgery, but both are now dedicated to regular exercise and a healthier diet.

“I (used to) always sit down to the table and grab the salt shaker after I put my food on the table,” Loftin said.

Many Americans consume up to 6,000 milligrams of sodium per day. One typical Chinese dinner can add up to half that amount.

“Consumers don't have a clue that they're pushing that blood pressure up,” said Diane Koenning, a registered dietitian at WakeMed.

Koenning helps heart patients adjust to eating just 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day – a goal that Meyer said was hard to achieve at first.

“Food didn't have a good taste to me. It was bland. It was like, blah,” she said.

Koenning promotes flavor alternatives, including healthy oils, herbs and spices.

“If you have great ingredients, you don't have to put a ton of salt in,” she said.

Loftin and Meyers say they have learned to be wise shoppers, looking for sodium on food labels, although “it doubles and triples the time at the grocery store,” he said.

A serving of plain cheese frozen pizza has 780 milligrams of sodium.

Beyond the grocery store, eating out is another hazard. A ham biscuit, for example, could give you “1,500 milligrams a day, plus a whopping load of saturated fat,” Koenning said.

After a while, though, heart patients discover that a low-salt diet is easier to swallow.

“I'm finding, like going out to restaurants, food is too salty for me,” Myer said.

Both Meyer and Loftin succeeded in lowering their blood pressure. They said their only wish is that they had adopted regular exercise and a healthier, low-sodium diet earlier.

“I don't want to go through this, make this trip again,” Loftin said.