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Why should I eat less salt?
We eat too much salt. It might be hard to believe, but the average person eats over 6,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium every day. That works out to about 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt, which is about 2 1/2 times the recommended amount of 2,400 mg per day.

What do the sodium (salt) numbers mean on food labels?
The government created rules back in the 1980s for nutrition information labeling on packaged foods. Before the regulations were passed, the only information required was a listing of the ingredients in the package, in order from the largest amount to the smallest amount.

Are salt substitutes as bad as eating too much salt?
There are a lot of different salt substitutes on the market, and you can find these in the same aisle as the spices and the salt. Most of them use forms of potassium that do a fair job at mimicking how sodium binds to the salt taste buds. There are also some herb preparations that call themselves salt replacements but they usually rely on lemon, which can help.


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Quantifying the Effects of Less Salt

I have said in the past that the typical American eats over 6000 milligrams (or 6 GRAMS) of sodium per day. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (2010;362(7):590-9) means I'm going to have to update that figure: the latest estimates, for 2005-2006, estimate that every adult male in the United States eats an average of 10.4 grams of salt per day. Women, on the other hand, only eat a more modest (and I use that term facetiously) amount of 7.3 grams per day.

That's a tablespoon and a half (4.5 teaspoons), for men, and about 1 tablespoon of salt (3 teaspoons) for women.

We know that reducing the amount of salt we eat can help reduce blood pressure and your risk of heart disease - from stroke to heart attack. If everyone in the United States over 35 years old reduced their salt intake by only 3 grams per day, what kind of impact would that have on our country's overall health?

The article reports on the efforts of a team of researchers from the University of California at San Francisco in collaboration with researchers at Stanford and Columbia Universities. Using a computer simulation of the effects of heart disease known as the Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) Policy Model, they estimated the effect that reduced salt intake would have on different segments of the population. They based their estimates on the known impact that reduced sodium has on blood pressure, taking into account such variables as race, systolic blood pressure, HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, smoking status, use of blood pressure medications and whether a person is diabetic or not.

To sum up their findings, reducing the amount of sodium in the diet by 3 grams per day would yield:

  • 60,000 to 120,000 fewer new cases of heart disease per year,
  • 32,000 to 66,000 fewer strokes each year,
  • 54,000 to 99,000 fewer heart attacks each year, and
  • 44,000 to 92,000 fewer deaths from any cause per year.

As I've said before, that's a lot of friends, coworkers and family members.

The effects of this lower sodium intake would be even higher among blacks than nonblacks regardless of age or sex. Black women's risk of stroke would decrease between 9 and 15%, while white women's risk of stroke would decrease just 5-9%. Black men and women between 35 and 64 would see their risk of death from all causes decrease by 7-11%, while nonblacks' risk would fall only 3-6%.

What this means for you

It's more urgent than ever to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet. The researchers estimate that 75-80% of the sodium in the U.S. diet is from processed foods - not from adding salt while cooking or at the table. One of the easiest ways to cut salt from your diet is to cook your own food from fresh ingredients as much as possible and measuring the salt you do put in your food. More tips on reducing the amount of sodium in your diet can be found on the Low Sodium Diet section at

First posted: March 3, 2010