We all know that salt in our diet contributes to stroke and coronary artery disease. What I didn’t realize until very recently was just how important it is. But a BBC Radio 4 interview with Graham MacGregor yesterday quickly fixed my misunderstanding.
Professor MacGregor was one of the first scientists to firmly establish the link between salt in the diet and high blood pressure. He is now a prominent campaigner for salt reduction in food. In the interview, he explains that high blood pressure is not an inevitable consequence of ageing, but is largely due to too much salt in our diet. 80% of the UK adult population has blood pressure high enough to elevate the risk of a stroke or heart attack. Most of these “at-risk” people have blood pressure in the “normal” range. My own blood pressure (around 130/80), while not classed as high, doubles my risk of heart disease.
How much salt is too much? According to Professor MacGregor, all salt is unnecessary. He points out that no mammals other than humans supplement their diet with added salt. Groups of hunter-gatherers that live away from the coast and do not import food have extremely low incidence of coronary artery disease, and do not see an increase in blood pressure with ageing.
While being aware of the dangers of salt for heart disease, I had always been under the impression that a certain intake of salt was inevitable and necessary, and that only excessive consumption led to high blood pressure. Having read up on the current research, I now know this is untrue. The only safe salt intake is zero added salt.
So now I have embarked on a quest to reduce salt in my diet. The biggest sources of salt are bread, cheese, processed meats, soup, and any kind of processed food, snacks or ready-meals. Restaurant food is often very salty too.
It’s the sodium in salt that is the culprit, and sodium is also present in soy sauce, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, and mono-sodium glutamate. Once you start looking for sodium in your diet, you discover that it’s everywhere!
Another fact – salt leads to water retention and weight gain. So reduce salt and shed a few pounds effortlessly!
To cut back, you should read the labels on the foods you buy and search for lower salt brands. A quick browse at my local supermarket revealed that cans of baked beans vary between 2g and nearly 4g of salt per can (the daily recommended limit is 6g, but this is just an arbitrary target, and ideally you should aim lower.) The highest salt content was in a premium organic brand! You need to identify the biggest sources of salt in your diet and see if you can cut back on them. Baked or ready-made products are likely to be the biggest sources, but watch out – salt is everywhere!
So far, I’ve identified bread as the primary source of salt in our household. Since we bake our own bread, we can control the amount of salt we add. Already we’ve cut back from 1.5 teaspoons per loaf to 1 teaspoon, with no effect on taste or texture. Next we’ll see what happens when we reduce the salt to 0.5 teaspoons per loaf.
I’ll finish with some good news – bananas! The effect of sodium can be countered by potassium, and one banana contains around 0.5g of potassium. Other good sources include potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, beans and beetroot. Yogurt and salmon are also good sources. So add these foods to your plate to counter the harmful effects of salt.