Q: My husband has high blood pressure, so I’m cooking low-salt these days. This means our meals taste bland and I’m tempted to reach for the salt shaker. After all, my blood pressure is normal. Do I really need to cut salt, too?
– Anonymous

A: Yes. A study from the National Institutes of Health in the DASH Sodium Study found that salt drives up blood pressure in both healthy and hypertensive people. The researchers found that daily intakes of sodium below 2,400mg (estimates of our typical intake range from 3,200 to 6,000mg daily) helped prevent rises in blood pressure that occur with advancing age. The best results were noted with sodium intakes of 1,500mg or less. The issue of salt really is one of how sensitive you are to its effects.

About one-third of us are salt sensitive, which means that our blood pressure goes up when our salt intake goes up, and our blood pressure drops when we cut back on salt. For people with high blood pressure (hypertension), cutting back on salt and losing weight is so effective at lowering blood pressure that many people are able to go off their blood pressure medications as a result. The problem is that there is no way to tell who is and who isn’t salt sensitive until you develop high blood pressure. Granted, if you are overweight, older, or African American, you’re at higher risk, but others are salt-sensitive, too. That’s why the American Heart Association recommends that everyone keep their intakes to less than 2,400mg (the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon of salt). Too much salt in your diet today also might be harmful to your bones, increasing the risk for osteoporosis down the line. While you miss the salty taste at meals, in reality only a third of our dietary salt comes from added salt in the kitchen. By far the biggest contributor is processed foods. In one study from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, an overwhelming 77% of people’s salt intake came from processed foods! Some of those foods most of us know are high in salt, such as soy sauce and canned soup, but many will come as quite a surprise. For example, a cup of canned tomato sauce has 1,498 mg, a cup of canned chili contains 1,336 mg, and a half cup of cottage cheese has 914 mg. In general, the more processed a food, the higher its salt content. To cut back on your salt today and save your blood pressure and bones in the future, try to: 1) Read labels. Keep an eye out for ingredients with “sodium” in the title, including sodium chloride, sodium benzoate, monosodium glutamate, and disodium phosphate. 2) Limit fast, convenience, and processed foods, including all fast foods, canned soups and sauces, all processed snack foods (chips, salted peanuts), and luncheon meats. 3) Limit salty condiments: bouillon, garlic salt, meat tenderizers, MSG, and baking soda. Instead, use lite salt substitutes, and season with herbs, lemon juice, and other flavors. 4) In restaurants, ask that food be prepared with less salt. 5) Flavor your food with other seasonings, such as herbs, roasted red pepper, chilies, fresh ginger, garlic, onions, salt substitutes, and lemon juice. 6) Base your diet on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat milk, and extra-lean meat and beans and you automatically will eat a low-sat diet. The added benefit is that this diet also helps curb your risk for all age-related disease, helps you live healthier longer, and will even help you shed a few pounds! – Elizabeth Somer