Keep the Salt Shaker: A Lesson from Uncle Louis

Most likely you’re familiar with the association between salt in the diet and high blood pressure.  Even if it’s only from your Aunt Edna nagging your Uncle Louis about adding salt to his potatoes at Christmas dinner.
          “Louis you know the doctor says you can’t have salt! It raises your blood pressure!” 
           “Zip it Edna! It’s Christmas. And these potatoes your sister made are so bland it’s like eating water!”

Ok, perhaps not like that, or maybe, EXACTLY like that.  Either way, through the normal course of life the connection between salt and high blood pressure is something you’ve likely picked up.  What you may not have learned though is high blood pressure increases risk for cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure.   

 These days, our salt intake is getting a lot more attention.  In the latest dietary guidelines from the USDA (updated every five years), a major recommendation was reducing salt intake. The average American takes in nearly twice the recommended daily amount of salt.  This is not good news.

A quick physiology lesson
“Salt”, as we commonly know it, is sodium chloride.  Sodium is one of our body’s significant electrolytes and is very important in regulating the amount of water in our blood stream.

Simply put, water follows sodium.  So the more sodium we have in our blood stream, the more water. The more water the higher our blood pressure.  Many older medicines for blood pressure are designed to remove this extra water through increased urination.

Sodium is also a positively charged ion (high school chemistry flashback!). The body uses this charge to regulate everything from muscle contraction, to cellular membrane permeability, and nerve impulses.  Pushing the balance of these charges out of whack can wreak havoc in our body.

The New Guidelines
Currently, the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium per day.  For perspective, one teaspoon of salt is 2,400mg of sodium.  The USDA now recommends that the upper intake limit for adults should be 2,300mg. 

Individuals at risk (children, African Americans, diabetics, high blood pressure patients) should aim for 1,500mg.  Most Americans would do well to shoot for this lower recommendation. 

A new study has created controversy by concluding high sodium intake does little harm.  I’ll cover this in Friday Focus this week.

Keep the Salt Shaker


My salt shaker. Actually a sea salt grinder from OXO. Try sea salt, it adds more flavor oomph.

If I asked you how to lower your salt intake you’d likely say something like, “Don’t add as much salt to my food” or “Throw away the salt shaker”.  In actuality, the added salt from our shaker is only a small portion of the salt we ingest in a typical day. 

Most of our salt intake comes from food we wouldn’t necessarily think of as salty.  Bread, deli meat, soup, frozen dinners, cereal, salad dressing, pasta, and condiments all contain high levels of sodium.   As do several sweet things, like pies and cookies.

Does this list have something in common?  Indeed.  All these items are packaged foods that have been processed.  Eating food that comes in a package has always been something to avoid for several reasons. Now add high sodium content to the list.

Uncle Louis was Right

When Uncle Louis grabbed the salt shaker he was actually not making that big of a dent in his daily sodium intake.  He would be fine adding salt to the bland potatoes (provided they were real potatoes, not processed stuff). What would have really gotten him was the rolls, salad dressing, gravy, and apple pie.

The bottom line is this:  To reduce your sodium intake eat as little processed food as you can (have I heard this somewhere before?).  Eat fresh veggies, unadulterated chicken, and other whole foods.   Feel free to use the salt shaker to add flavor to these foods. 

So, what Louis should have said,

“My darling Edna, thank you so much for your concern over my health.  I promise to eat plenty of fresh green beans, avoid the rolls, and skip dessert.  I love you so, my dear.  Please pass the wine.”


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