When it comes to increasing your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, sodium intake may not be the culprit. In fact, population studies, clinical trials, and just plain basic science point to something else being a much bigger problem than salt.
According to a study published in the online journal Open Heart, added sugars in processed foods most likely contribute more than salt to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. This is significant information, as cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of premature death in the developed world, and high blood pressure is the most significant contributor to this disease. Salt can play a role, but it appears that it is not the true culprit.
In fact, ingesting 3-6 grams of salt per day is considered healthy, and getting less than 3 grams can actually have negative effects. Restricting salt intake can reduce blood pressure, but the improvements are generally modest. Reducing sugar intake, however, can have a much more significant impact.
A few hundred years ago, people consumed just a few pounds of sugar every year. Now average consumption in the U.S. is estimated to be between 77 and 152 pounds a year. We're eating the amount of sugar in a week that people used to eat in a year.
And if a quarter of your daily calories come from added sugar, then your risk goes up astronomically. Your risk of cardiovascular disease is three times greater than that of someone who gets less than 10% of their calories from added sugar.
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Do keep in mind that not all forms of sugar are bad. The natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not dangerous. However, fructose, particularly high fructose corn syrup, does quite a bit of damage. And you'll find it in many processed foods.
If your daily intake of fructose is above 74 g, you'll have a much higher risk of high blood pressure, a 30% increased risk of pressure above 140/90, and a whopping 77% increased risk of pressure above 160/100.
Even if I haven't convinced you that sugar is worse for your health than salt, the solution is still the same for both: avoid eating processed foods. These are the main source of the added sugar and added salt that do so much damage to our health. And don't think you can sneak them in occasionally. The study authors warn, "The evidence is clear that even moderate doses of added sugar for short durations may cause substantial harm." Stick with whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, to keep your cardiovascular system healthy.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand