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Week 6: The facts about high blood pressure

February 14, 2012


There are a lot of facts about high blood pressure that should matter to all of us, but the one that matters to me most right now is this: I have it.

It's not just a little high; it's high enough that I'm having to make drastic changes to my lifestyle –– something I did not see coming when I started this column. I thought I could ease into this transition of making healthier choices, but the choices I've made up until a week ago have taken that option away from me. No one to blame but myself.

I am making a lot of changes. The effect of giving up so much at once is making me incredibly grumpy –– just ask my husband –– but the one that is really throwing me for the biggest loop is sodium.

I am telling you, folks: sodium is the devil. It's everywhere. It's in everything I used to love to eat and now, my world tastes like cardboard. Bland cardboard.

I just thought my husband and I were eating healthier. Until I realized that I've never met a vegetable I didn't love to saute in olive oil and salt. It's not just salt, either. Practically everything in my cupboard and fridge had to be thrown out because of the amount of sodium. Sweet stuff has sodium, plain stuff has sodium –– for goodness sake, fat-free salad dressing has sodium. (I can't even have a salad with dressing? Are you kidding?)

Forget eating out. There are a lot of diet-fads to which restaurants will cater –– Weight Watchers, low-carb, gluten-free –– but a low-sodium one? It's just not in the cards. I can't blame them, I wouldn't want to put bland cardboard on my menu, either. I have read that my need for salt will eventually change as I allow my taste buds to adjust, but for now it's all cardboard, all the time.

This new sodium-free lifestyle has made for an interesting week of meal-planning at my house, I can tell you that. I was in the grocery store for an hour and a half last night, and after reading countless labels, audibly gasping every time I read the sodium content, I left defeated. When my coworker, Kate Salter, came in with homemade sausage balls this morning I had to sit on my hands to keep from eating one. Most diets will say there is room for "just one anything" but not low-sodium. That one sausage ball probably had at least half of my daily allowance for sodium. Which, in case you're wondering, is 1500 mg. Which is nothing. Eight baked potato chips has almost 500 mg of sodium. 1/2 cup of most vegetable-only pasta sauce has anywhere from 300-800 mg. 1 cup of the healthiest, heart-friendly, high-protein cereal has over 300 mg. See how much fun this is? I used to say I didn't want to do Weight Watchers because I didn't like all the counting –– if only I knew then what I know now.

You don't have to just take my word for it. Here is a little information courtesy of the Mississippi State Department of Health:

Americans consume too much sodium. High sodium consumption raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
• Research strongly shows a dose-dependent relationship between consuming too much salt and raised levels of blood pressure.
• When salt intake is reduced, blood pressure begins decreasing within weeks on average.
• Populations who consume diets low in salt do not experience the increase in blood pressure with age that is seen in most Western countries.

Is it salt or is it sodium?
• Sodium chloride is the chemical name for salt.
• The words salt and sodium are not exactly the same, yet these words are often used in place of each other. For example, the Nutrition Facts Panel uses “sodium,” whereas the front of the package may say “low salt.”
• Ninety percent of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt.

Sodium consumption and sodium in our food supply
• We all need a small amount of sodium to keep our bodies working properly.
• The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day. Individuals who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should limit intake to 1,500 mg of sodium per day. These specific populations account for about half of the U.S. population and the majority of adults.
• The average daily sodium intake for Americans age 2 years and older is more than 3,400 mg.
• Americans are consuming substantially more sodium. Since the 1970s, the amount of sodium in our food has increased, and we are eating more food each day than in the past.
• The majority of the sodium consumed is from processed and restaurant foods; only a small portion is used in cooking or added at the table.
• Decreasing personal sodium intake can be hard, even for motivated persons.
• Sodium content can vary significantly within food categories. For example, a regular slice of frozen cheese pizza can range from 450 mg to 1200 mg, and some brands of breakfast sausage links have twice the sodium content of other brands.
• Nutrition labeling and package messaging are easily misunderstood by consumers.
• Sodium information is not readily available for restaurant foods and can be hard for the consumer to estimate. For example, consumers might be surprised to find that the restaurant salad they are consuming may contain more than 900 mg of sodium — and could only find this information on the company’s website.

Sodium Myths and Facts:
Myth: The benefits of sodium reduction haven't been proved.
Fact: A large body of strong scientific evidence shows that greater sodium intake causes higher blood pressure, and that reducing sodium intake lowers blood pressure.
Myth: The amount of sodium I consume is a personal choice.
Fact: Restaurant food and processed food in stores have so much sodium already added that, in practice, there is little choice for those who want to consume less sodium. Three-quarters of the sodium we consume has been put into our food before we buy it.
Myth: There are more important dietary changes to make than sodium reduction.
Fact: Sodium needs attention because excess intake increases blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major public health problem for millions of Americans.
Myth: Lowering my sodium won't have much effect on my blood pressure.
Fact: Even moderate changes in sodium intake can have significant benefits. A 10 percent reduction in sodium consumption could prevent 480,000 U.S. heart attacks and 500,000 strokes.
Myth: Food with less sodium wouldn't taste good.
Fact: A person's taste for salt – the major source of sodium – can change. Americans' current appetite for salt likely comes from excess salt in the food supply. Gradually reducing sodium in food will allow individual tastes to adjust.
Myth: The food industry should reduce sodium for me, so I won't have to change my habits.
Fact: For nearly 40 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been asking the food industry to voluntarily reduce sodium, but most manufacturers have not chosen to do so. Voluntary change alone is unlikely to be sufficient. Successful sodium reduction will require action from consumers, policy makers, and the industry.
I won't preach, because nothing short of my overwhelming fear of dying could have made me give up my favorite foods, either. However, I will challenge our readers to do this: Start reading labels. What you see might surprise you.
(Also, I beg of you, anyone with some great low-sodium recipes, please email me at I can only take plain grilled chicken for so long.)

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