UAB Medicine News


Watch Out for "Hidden Salt": Processed foods are a culprit for heart attacks.

Studies have shown that cutting salt in our diets could prevent almost 500,000 heart attacks a year. Even if you don’t use the salt shaker, the average American consumes more than twice the recommended amount of sodium in their diet. So, where is all that sodium coming from? And, as consumers, what do we do to cut the salt? 

Most salt we consume is not voluntarily added. “About 75 percent of salt we get is hidden in processed and prepared foods,” says  UAB hypertension specialist David Calhoun, MD. “As Americans dine out more, restaurant-prepared foods are a larger contributor.”

The American Heart Association recommends a general guideline of about 4-6 grams of salt per day, and fewer grams for those at risk for high blood pressure or heart disease, but most of us are not following these guidelines. Why? Processed foods are easy (think: cans, boxes, and frozen meals), and the more we eat, the more sodium we take in, which can be a detriment to our health. 

How does salt affect my heart?
“A number of epidemiology studies have shown that salt is related to cardiovascular risk,” says Calhoun. “Salt promotes fluid retention, and to compensate for that, our bodies retain water. In turn, fluid in the blood vessels is increased.” This is high blood pressure—a severe risk and common cause for heart attacks. At least one-third of American adults have high blood pressure, which translates to 75-80 million Americans. 

It is important to maintain healthy kidneys, which excrete excess salt. Over time and with poor diets, the kidneys can suffer. Patients with kidney disease, the elderly, and the African American population are more sensitive to salt and have a more difficult time excreting the proper amount of sodium. The prevalence of heart attacks increases with age and body weight, so a healthy lifestyle of exercise and natural, unprocessed foods is essential.

Keep salt at bay: Tips to keep your heart healthy.
Be attentive to the salt content in foods,” recommends Calhoun. “Eat fresh vegetables and moderate canned and boxed foods in your diet.”

Add flavor with sodium-free herbs and spices. “The number one step is to avoid the salt shaker at the table and when cooking,” says Calhoun. 

  • Avoid prepared foods. Not only does fast food have added sodium and preservatives, high-end restaurants also tend to use extra salt for flavor.
  • Order fresh foods and stay away from menu items with heavy sauces or cheeses. 
  • Skip the preservatives. Cheeses, processed meats, and canned foods are culprits for high salt content. “Although some low-fat or fat-free foods are touted as ‘healthy’, a lot of times the lack of taste is made up with salt and can be even worse,” says Calhoun. Carefully check labels on frozen dinners, canned soups, and especially processed meats, like deli meats.

“UAB continues to research and look at the ongoing effects of salt in the diet,” says Calhoun. “It is evident that moderating your salt consumption is important for overall health.”

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