The Facts on Heart Disease, Sodium, and Sugar
Pouring on the salt and sugar is just inviting heart disease and other health problems. Find out how to get your salt and sugar habits under control.
When it comes to the American diet, we tend to get too much of the wrong nutrients. Near the top of the overdo list, after fat, are sugar and salt. Both are abundant in many of the packaged foods we buy, whether it's salty chips or sugary cookies. And the problems start when those foods replace too many of the healthy ones we should be eating, like whole grains and vegetables.
How Sodium Affects Heart Disease Risk
Salt is a necessary mineral, but not in the amounts many of us consume on a regular basis. The recommended maximum amount is 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1,500 mg a day for people more at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including people in their middle years and older, African-Americans (who have a greater tendency toward high blood pressure), and people who already have high blood pressure.
According to one study, the average person with high blood pressure still eats twice that recommended amount, or 3,300 mg, and for those without high blood pressure, average sodium consumption is 3,600 mg a day. If you were to measure that out, you'd see that it's quite a bit more than you sprinkle on the foods you eat over the course of the day. Much of the excess salt we eat comes from hidden sources, namely packaged foods. When you're reading labels, avoid products containing sodium, sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, and its chemical symbol Na — these all mean salt.
The Salt-High Blood Pressure Connection
The main problem related to salt consumption? Hypertension, or high blood pressure. Many studies show a direct link between sodium intake and high blood pressure; the more salt you consume, the higher your blood pressure will be. This is because the kidneys cannot process and eliminate salt beyond a certain amount, which influences blood pressure in the arteries. If not properly controlled, high blood pressure can lead to kidney failure as well as heart failure, heart attack, and stroke.
Reversing the Salt Trend
An example of just how dramatic the benefits of reducing salt intake can be comes from Finland, where, 30 years ago, the average salt intake was 4,400 mg a day. The Finnish government, along with the national food industry and media, promoted the benefits of a lower-salt diet, manufacturing foods with less salt, and using flavoring alternatives. Over the course of three decades, the average Finn's intake of salt was lowered by 33 percent; even though this amount is still considered too high, there was a 75 to 80 percent decrease in the number of deaths in that country from coronaryheart disease and stroke.
High Sugar Consumption and Heart Disease
Sugar (as glucose) is a vital energy source for the body. Natural sugars are found in a number of sources, such as milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose), but again the problem doesn't come from drinking milk and eating an apple, but from the addition of refined sugars and corn syrup, among other sweeteners, to processed foods.
The average American consumes more than 3 ounces, or more than 20 teaspoons, of sugar per day. According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines, added sugars should be limited to 8 teaspoons per day, and less than 2 teaspoons per day for people with high blood pressure following the DASH diet. One can of soda will easily surpass even the higher suggested limit without contributing any nutritional value to your diet. That's why sugar is often referred to as empty calories.
Just as with salt, be aware of sugar's code names on labels: Glucose, sucrose, lactose, fructose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, and dextrose are all sugars — and don't be surprised to find more than one on any given ingredient list.
The Sugar-Heart Disease Connection
A high-sugar, high-calorie diet can lead to obesity and to diabetes, both of which put you at greater risk for heart disease. Because sugar often goes hand in hand with saturated fat — think doughnuts and pastries — people who eat diets high in refined sugar seem more likely to also be eating foods high in saturated and trans fats, which do promote heart disease. All that sugar and fat leave little desire for good-for-you "whole" foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that promote good health. Whole grains in particular are rich in dietary fiber and can actually help prevent heart disease.
To better nurture your cardiovascular health, pay more attention to the foods that you eat. It's not always possible to eat only freshly prepared foods, but the more you do, the less salt and sugar you'll take in and the more you can lower your risk of cardiovascular dise
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