Salt: why the fuss?

What's the link between salt and blood pressure?

Salt has been used for thousands of years to flavour - and preserve - food. Yet it's only recently that we've learnt about its dangers - or lived long enough to experience them. Because the sodium in salt makes your body retain water. This, in turn, increases the amount of blood in your arteries - and that increases your blood pressure. What's more, as you get older, your body gets less efficient at removing salt from your system through your kidneys - so the less you can cope with.

Fortunately, a few simple changes to your diet could bring your salt intake to safe limits - without ruining your appetite!

Salt - how much from where?

On average, we in Britain eat just over 8g of salt a day. That doesn't sound like much; it's nearly 1½ teaspoons. But this amount is still more than we need. We should be eating about 6g a day which equals about a teaspoonful.

But to make things more complicated still, about three quarters of the salt we eat comes not from the salt we add to our food but the salt already in ready-prepared food, including cornflakes and many cakes!

Some foods are more likely than others to be high in salt. They include:

● Bacon and ham

● Stock cubes and gravy granules

● Olives and pickles

● Salami

● Crisps and roasted nuts

● Anchovies and prawns

● Yeast extract.

Other foods can contain large amounts of 'hidden' salt. They include:

● Bread

● Smoked meat and fish

● Soy sauce

● Soups

● Cereals and pizza

● Ready-made sauces and ready meals

● Sausages

● Sandwiches.

Cutting down salt - how do I do it?

Firstly, take it slow. Your tastebuds have had a lifetime to get used to the taste of lots of salt, and they'll complain mightily that your food is completely tasteless if you cut it out all at once. So take a long hard look at all the top sources of salt in your diet and tackle one at a time.

Most prepared foods now have lists of ingredients, including the salt content. Most shops these days have lower salt options - look out for these for an 'easy win'.

Remember that salt is salt, no matter how posh it looks! These days, you can buy everything from pink Himalayan rock salt to unrefined sea-salt flakes. But they all contain the same amount of sodium - and it's the sodium in salt that's linked to raised blood pressure. So expensive 'sexy salts' won't do less damage to your blood pressure, just more damage to your wallet!

The only exceptions to the 'all salt is salt' rule are reduced sodium salt alternatives. These taste like salt but have large amounts of the sodium replaced with potassium, which doesn't up your blood pressure. Lo-Salt is an example of this. If you have long term kidney problems or are taking diuretics (water tablets) you may need to avoid products containing increased potassium, but they shouldn't be a problem for otherwise healthy people.

Sour tastes actually bring out the taste of salt - so by adding a squeeze of lemon, you can add less salt and still keep the flavour.

Sweet tastes, on the other hand, tend to mask the taste of salt - so be especially careful of sweet and sour or barbecued foods, which often contain sugar. There are lots of tasty flavourings to buy these days which contain spices or herbs rather than salt. These will help keep your tastebuds interested.

Your tastebuds will get used to less salt within a few weeks - and in the long term, the less salt you eat, the more you'll taste it. What's more, you'll start to appreciate more subtle tastes within weeks, too. It could open up a whole new world of taste!

Blood pressure - why does it matter?

Every bit of our bodies - muscles, brain, kidneys and all - needs oxygen. Oxygen is picked up from our lungs in our red blood cells. Then it's distributed around our bodies in our arteries - the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart and lungs.

Our blood pressure is the pressure inside our arteries. If it's too low, we can't get enough oxygen to our brain - that's why we feel faint or lightheaded. If it's too high, on the other hand, the pressure inside our arteries can be dangerous. As we get older, cholesterol tends to build up inside our arteries, in lumps called 'plaques'. High blood pressure increases the risk that one of these plaques will burst, blocking off the artery. If that artery supplies blood to your heart, your heart will be deprived of oxygen - that's a heart attack. If it supplies part of your brain, the brain will be starved of oxygen - that's a stroke. Fortunately, there are lots of effective ways of keeping your blood pressure from getting too high. Avoiding being overweight and watching your diet will help. But if that's not enough, your doctor can give you tablets to keep it within safe limits.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.


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