Don't pass the salt: If Americans were to cut their salt intake to recommended levels, they'd have far fewer cases of high blood pressure, and save billions of dollars in health care costs, a new study estimates.
Because high sodium intake can contribute to high blood pressure — and its complications, including heart and kidney disease - the Institute of Medicine recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. The average American, however, gets about 1,000 mg more than that, according to the authors of the study in the American Journal of Health Promotion.
In the new study, investigators at the non-profit research organization RAND calculated the potential health and financial benefits that could be reaped if Americans cut their average sodium intake to 2,300 mg.
Kartika Palar, a doctoral fellow at RAND in Santa Monica, California, and Dr. Roland Sturm arrived at their conclusions using data from a government health survey conducted between 1999 and 2004. The survey included information on Americans' sodium intake, blood pressure and medication use.
The researchers estimate that if the average sodium intake fell to the recommended level of 2,300 mg per day, there would be 11 million fewer cases of high blood pressure each year. (Estimates are that about 70 million American adults have high blood pressure.) The costs of treating high blood pressure and related heart disease and strokes would fall by $18 billion.
Cutting sodium consumption down to 1,500 mg, they say, could save $26 billion.
But while cutting down on sodium sounds simple, it is actually fairly difficult for individuals to do, the researchers write.
That's because so much of the sodium Americans consume comes not from their own salt shakers, but from packaged foods and meals eaten out.
Given this, it makes sense to explore how cutting sodium from processed foods and restaurant menus would affect widespread sodium consumption, Palar told Reuters Health in an email.
"Reading labels is one solution to reducing the amount of sodium consumed via processed foods, but this solution isn't available at most restaurants," Palar said.
She also pointed out that while label reading is a good idea, it only does consumers good if there are readily available lower-sodium alternatives.
While achieving such sodium reductions may require changes in the food supply, consumers can help themselves now by paying closer attention to product labels, according to Palar.
That, she said, includes inspecting labels on ostensibly "healthy" foods — which may be low in sugar, fat or calories, but still high in sodium.