Health Team

Shaking the salt habit can prevent heart disease

Posted March 16, 2009 3:19 p.m. EDT
Updated March 17, 2009 7:40 a.m. EDT

Cutting back on salt – even by a small amount – can go a long way to preventing heart disease, according to a new study by the American Heart Association.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for developing heart disease. In many people, consuming too much salt causes that high blood pressure.

Rodolfo Hernandez had to have heart bypass surgery before he got  inspired to make some big changes in his diet.

"No salt at all – period," Hernandez said.

The study found that if every American ate one less gram of salt a day, cardiovascular disease would drop overall, reducing the number of heart-related deaths by 200,000 over a 10-year period.

"No question, it will reduce blood pressure, and it will reduce stroke and heart attacks," said cardiologist Dr. Franz Messerli, with St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.

In the past three decades, salt consumption in the U.S. has jumped by 50 percent. The average American eats as much as 12 grams – or 2 teaspoons – of salt a day, much of it coming from prepackaged foods or food served in restaurants.

"If you can stay clear of canned food, frozen food, any food that's processed, your salt intake will fall drastically," Messerli said.

Researchers are calling on the food industry and the government to start cutting back on salt in food.

In the meantime, doctors say, read food labels.

"Up to 200 milligrams per serving, that's acceptable – green light," Messerli said. "Between 200 and 400 milligrams, yellow light – be careful, go easy. And above 400 milligrams, don't touch – red light."

When eating out, look for menu items marked as heart healthy. When cooking at home, use salt substitutes or other spices to flavor food.

Hernandez said that he doesn't miss salt at all. He wants to put his heart before his taste buds to keep his body working longer, he said.

"When I do get some salty food, I push it away," Hernandez said.