For decades, our rising salt intake has slowly but steadily climbed the chart of dietary habits most likely to kill.
Thirty years ago, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease reported an alarming statistic. They found that in 1990, malnutrition, diarrhea, and infections in underweight children were the leading cause of death worldwide for all ages.
Infants and children in the world’s poorest regions were disproportionately dying from a lack of food and clean water. Fortunately, by 2010 the GBD reported the risk of death from these factors had dropped more than 60 percent, from 1st to 8th place.
What had replaced them as the risk factor most likely to cause death?
Hypertension or high blood pressure.
Yet despite that disturbing fact, in a very few parts of the world, high blood pressure remained unknown. This study by the INTERSALT research group examined salt intake figures from 52 global communities.
Of them, only four reported a number lower than the American Heart Association’s ideal daily limit of 1,500 mg (2/3 teaspoon).
Meet the Yanomami, poster children of low salt intake
One of the four was the Amazon’s primitive Yanomami Indian people. Inhabiting an area downriver from my mother’s birthplace, they consumed an essentially salt-free diet.
What impact did this have on their rate of hypertension?
In Dr. Michael Greger’s words:
“Meet the Yanomamo people, a no-salt culture! What was the percentage of the population tested that had high blood pressure? Zero, whereas elsewhere in Brazil, up to 38% of the population may be affected.”
As bad as the (non-Yanomamo) Brazilian number is, the percentage of Americans walking around with elevated blood pressure is even worse. Nearly half of U.S. adults suffer from Hypertension Stage 1(130/80) or above.
Americans’ place on the salt intake spectrum
When it comes to their salt intake, how do Americans measure up?
Less than 1 in 100 are consuming the AHA’s ideal limit. The CDC calculates the average salt intake for Americans aged 2 or older at 3,400 mg per day.
That’s more than double the AHA recommendation!
While it’s true that high salt intake has long been linked to high blood pressure, it doesn’t affect everyone that way. But that doesn’t make it safe.
There’s plenty of scientific evidence eating salty foods can stiffen our artery walls (endothelium) within 30 minutes. Endothelial stiffening typically leads to high blood pressure.
Even in cases where blood pressure seems to be unaffected, however, the arterial walls still stiffen. Dr. Greger describes the findings of a University of Delaware Department of Kinesiology study this way:
“…as you can see, even in people whose blood pressure is unresponsive to salt intake, they still suffer significant suppression of their artery function. So… salt hurts our arteries… within minutes of it going into our mouth.””
What’s responsible for accelerating U.S. salt intake?
According to the CDC, most of it comes from processed and fast foods. Think fast-food cheeseburgers, with 710 mg to 1,690 mg of sodium. Or one slice of frozen cheese pizza, with 370 mg to 730 mg.
Sweet treats can also be deceptively salty, according to this CBS report. A large McDonald’s chocolate shake uses up 510 mg of the AHA’s recommended daily allowance. And a plain Krispy Kreme cake donut weighs in with 320 mg.
In a meta-analysis of sodium-intake data, University of Washington researchers found that for 20- to 50-year-olds, chicken was the greatest source of sodium. During processing, saltwater is injected into chicken carcasses to prevent disease and dehydration.
In a comparative study from Brussels’ VUB research university, the chicken data may explain why European vegans were the only group to improve on the AHA’s daily sodium recommendation. They came in at 1316 mg per day.
Once again, a whole-food, plant-based diet free of processed foods appears to be the best diet to lower salt intake.
And by doing that, it also prevents ( or even reverses) hypertension, the world’s number one killer!