Cutting salt cuts heart disease risk

Even a minimal reduction can benefit cardiovascular health, a study says. Areas to target include processed foods and restaurant meals.

By — Posted Feb. 12, 2010

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Reducing dietary salt intake by as little as half a teaspoon a day could significantly cut cardiovascular disease risks and health care costs, according to a study published Jan. 20 online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers used the Coronary Heart Disease Policy Model to quantify the benefits of reducing dietary salt intake by as much as 3 g per day. The population-based model is a computer simulation of heart disease in adults ages 35 and older in the United States.

The data projected that cutting salt by 3 g each day would lower the annual number of new coronary heart disease cases by approximately 60,000, stroke by 32,000 and myocardial infarction by 54,000. Financially, researchers estimate that the nation would save $10 billion to $24 billion each year in health care costs (link).

"All those things together suggest it's a good idea to [advance] the efforts currently under way [to reduce dietary salt intake] through regulatory means," said internist Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD, an author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

New York City is heading up the National Salt Reduction Initiative, which calls for a voluntary reduction of salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods amounting to 25% over the next five years. At least 17 national health organizations, including the American Medical Association, and 26 cities, states and related entities are involved.

The AMA and other groups have long advocated for food labels and restaurant menus to include sodium content to guide people toward healthier choices. In 2006, the AMA adopted policy calling for a minimum 50% reduction within 10 years in the amount of sodium in processed foods, fast-food products and restaurant meals.

Studies have found that the largest boost in sodium intake can be traced to consumption of processed foods and restaurant meals, rather than from salt added in home-cooked meals.

Dr. Bibbins-Domingo said national salt regulations are needed for widespread cardiovascular benefits to be achieved. Until then, she recommended physicians counsel their patients with chronic illnesses on foods that tend to have high salt content and urge them to compare brands of particular food items to select the ones with the lowest salt levels.

"It is remarkably difficult for patients to make those changes on an individual basis," Dr. Bibbins-Domingo said. "From my perspective as a doctor, the best thing I can do is raise awareness."

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