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A Pinch of Salt

Are we sabotaging our health?

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A Pinch of Salt

Salt is everywhere and yet too much sodium can lead to many health risks. Learn the dangers of this innocuous seasoning and how to reduce your salt intake.

It lurks in many surprising places: that half cup of cottage cheese you had with lunch; the mayonnaise, tuna fish, and bread of your sandwich–even your breakfast cereal.

Salt is everywhere, and though it’s vital for many important bodily functions, too much can put your health at risk.

“Salt has many crucial functions in our body,” says registered dietician Nina Hirvi of the Copeman Healthcare Centre. Sodium, one of salt’s main chemical components, is the key to keeping a proper balance of water and other fluids throughout your body. It’s also essential for the proper functioning of your nerves and muscles.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Though our bodies require it, most of us get far more salt than we need. A recent Statistics Canada report found that ­85 percent of men and 60 percent of women consume more than the recommended upper limit for daily intake of sodium.

“A healthy adult should consume between 1,500 and 2,400 mg of sodium per day,” says Patricia Chuey, a Vancouver-based dietician and manager of nutrition affairs for the Overwaitea Food Group.

Although the occasional salty splurge won’t hurt, consistently consuming too much can put your health at risk. “Long-term excess intake is linked to high blood pressure, heart problems, and kidney troubles,” says Chuey.

Excess salt has also been linked to stomach cancer and may contribute to the development of osteoporosis and bone problems, as salt causes the body to lose calcium, according to Chuey.

Where Salt Lurks

“Too much salt can also cause swelling and contribute to the formation of renal stones,” says Dr. Jennie Weisenburger, a naturopathic doctor with West Vancouver’s Bellevue Natural Health Clinic.

“Salt is so prevalent in the modern diet because of the high consumption of processed and prepared foods over a more traditional whole foods diet,” says Weisenburger. “Most packaged foods are loaded with salt because it enhances flavours and textures and acts as
a preservative.”

A whopping 77 percent of the salt you consume comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to Stats Canada. A mere 11 percent comes from salt added at the table and during cooking; and only 12 percent comes from food in its natural form. The report highlights foods such as pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, soups, pasta, cheese, and cereals as some of the main sources of sodium in the average Canadian diet.

Change is Easy

Don’t despair; a simple change in your intake can make a dramatic difference to your health. A study published in the British Medical Journal in April 2007 said that cutting back on sodium could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

In May the Canadian Journal of Cardiology published a study suggesting a reduction of sodium in the collective Canadian diet could reduce the incidence of hypertension by 30 percent and ultimately save the health care system $430 million per year.

“We should all be concerned about the amount of salt we eat,” says Hirvi, “even if you are young and healthy.”

So, think twice before reaching for that salt shaker and be sure to check your food labels for lurking sodium. It’s a simple change, but it could make a world of difference when it comes to your health.

How to Reduce Your Sodium Intake

  • eat fewer processed/packaged foods
  • read food labels and buy sodium-reduced versions of common products (such as soup and tomato juice)
  • don’t keep a salt shaker on the table
  • cook at home rather than eating at restaurants
  • use less salt in cooking
  • rinse canned goods (such as beans or fish) before using
  • use the smallest portion of condiments possible
  • use fresh meat instead of processed, cured, or smoked meats
  • flavour foods with fresh lemon or lime juice and herbs instead of salt

Surprising High-Sodium Foods

  • canned tomato sauce
  • cottage cheese
  • cheese (especially low-fat varieties because salt is used to enhance flavour)
  • breakfast cereals
  • fast-food sandwiches
  • ketchup and other condiments
  • salad dressings
  • flavoured rice and pasta mixes
  • baking powder and baking soda
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