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Take this with a grain of saltbut 10 of potassium

Published January 08. 2011 09:00AM

Over the past year or so, much has been written about America's liberal use of salt, the chemical compound known as sodium chloride used to preserve and flavor foods, because too much sodium in your diet hurts your health. I possess, for instance, a folder full of articles that links high sodium ingestion to hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.

One claims that cutting back on salt could save thousands of lives in just the United Kingdom alone. Another projects a U.S. reduction in salt use by just 10 percent could save billions in healthcare costs.

A third estimates how much healthier today's American teens would be as adults if their use of salt would be reduced by 33 percent.

I feel that you need to be made aware of such findings, but I haven't done so yet. That's because every time I start writing, I start feeling like a hypocrite.

According to organizations like the American Heart Association, I ingest far too much sodium.

The AHA recommends ingesting no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. I exceed that with just my typical, 500-calorie after-supper snack.

When I averaged three days' worth of my meals, for instance, I consumed 4650 mg of sodium per day, nearly double the recommendation on the Nutrition Facts label and more than triple what the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended for Federal guidelines for 2010.

So the plan for this column is to push my feelings of hypocrisy aside, furnish the pertinent facts, and then theorize why hammering up every hill from Palmerton to Parryville to Penn's Peak and back hasn't given me a heart attack or stroke.

Last April, the Institute of Medicine called for the Food and Drug Administration to put limits on sodium levels in restaurant meals and processed foods. By June, the FDA had called upon food processors to voluntarily reduce its use.

This request created the National Salt Reduction Initiative, which received a pledge from 16 major food producers to reduce sodium use in the next five years by 25 percent. To act so quickly and without coercion makes it apparent that food processors know that excessive sodium harms health.

Maybe that's because they read the Interstroke study published in The Lancet that found, in 3,000 stroke victims spread across 22 countries, the single greatest predictor of stroke was high blood pressure, a condition often exacerbated by sodium ingestion.

Or the previously referenced IOM report that called high blood pressure "a neglected disease" and to reduce its incidence the U.S. must reduce its salt intake 70 percent of which comes from packaged and restaurant foods.

Or the aforementioned the University of California, San Francisco study that estimates a 33 percent reduction in salt use by teens which would still keep them well over the old limit would decrease their cases of hypertension in middle age by 1.2 million.

I know I've read all those studies. That's why my seemingly excessive use of sodium my daily average is nearly 1200 mg over the typical American adult average posted by the CDC in its June 25 online issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is bothersome.

But I'm eating good stuff. Honestly.

Where the CDC study found Americans are getting a large share of their sodium through highly processed foods, such as store-bought soups, potato chips, French fries, lunch meats and grain-based meals like pizza and burgers, more than two-thirds of my daily sodium comes from three "healthy" sources: fat-free cottage cheese, fat-free hot chocolate mix, and high-fiber cereals.

By eating these in high amounts, I get more than the suggested FDA amounts of protein, calcium, and fiber.

However, I also get more than the suggested daily amount of sodium. Two things, I believe, keep this from increasing my blood pressure.

The first: exercise reduces blood pressure. The week before writing this column, for example, I spent 17 hours either on the bike or in the gym.

In those 17 hours, I lost a lot of electrolytes, one of which is sodium so my actual need is probably higher than typical.

The second: sodium ingestion by itself may not be the cause of high blood pressure. Many believe it's a high ratio of sodium to potassium that creates it.

For example, heart disease, often the end product of high blood pressure, was unknown to the caveman. That's probably because the typical diet back then provided 10 times more potassium than sodium.

The modern ratio is not even 1 to 1. The typical American ingests 3,000 mg of potassium and 4,000 mg of sodium.

Even though it's difficult for me to give you an accurate estimate of my potassium ingestion, it's higher than my sodium ingestion. For instance, the lunch I usually eat after a long, weekend ride baked squash, sprinkled with a salt substitute high in potassium, and two servings of Parrillo Protein Pudding contains more than 6000 mg.

So what are you to learn from all this?

That while it's just about impossible to reach the low level of sodium ingestion that many health organizations are suggesting the CDC estimates that only one in 18 Americans do so reducing to some degree is prudent.

So is exercising and eating fruits and vegetables in their natural state, for most are loaded with potassium.

For example, three and a half ounces of fresh corn contains 280 mg of potassium and 1 mg of sodium, yet the process of canning the same amount of corn leeches 183 mg of the potassium and adds 235 mg of sodium.

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