BY JACLYN BRICE
Ministry Health Care
Those little white granules look so pretty, and they taste so good. Sugar and salt: they give us pleasure and a few health benefits. But even when we’re not sprinkling them liberally on our food, we eat more of them than we should.
Salt has long been linked to high blood pressure. You may remember your grandfather avoiding the salt shaker after he was diagnosed with hypertension.
Today, we know, the salt shaker is the least of our worries. About 75 percent of sodium in the American diet comes from pre-packaged, processed and restaurant food, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Only 6 percent is added at the table.
A small amount of salt is crucial to any diet. It helps conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles and maintain a balance of water and minerals in the body. With too much salt, however, that balance is disrupted, leading to fluid retention and high blood pressure. More than a third of Americans have high blood pressure, and this puts them at extra risk of strokes, heart attacks and kidney disease.
If your primary care clinician has noted that your blood pressure has tended to be high recently, you may have been advised to cut back on salty foods such as bacon, chips and pepperoni. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has been found to be an excellent approach for lowering blood pressure. This diet is low in sodium and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and reduced-fat dairy products. In addition to providing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, it may help restore a balance between water and minerals.
Dietary guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day, or lower–even for those that have hypertension. Modeling studies estimate that lowering average sodium intake to this level could prevent 11 million cases of hypertension nation-wide.
Some experts argue that sugar is an even greater danger–not just for its role in weight gain but increased risk of developing diabetes.
Our bodies need energy from carbohydrates, but the added sugar in the American diet–an average of 16 percent of daily calories–goes far beyond basic needs. The excess comes mainly from soft drinks, fast food and desserts. As we know, these are empty calories that are easily linked to the increased prevalence of obesity and overweight that is now plaguing the United States.
In the blood stream, the excess sugar causes dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Some call for a limit of 25 grams of total fructose and sugar daily. That’s less than a third of what the average American consumes.
Added sugar can be found most prominently in the same types of food that carry excess salt–pre-packaged and highly processed products. Since the sugar and salt are already added, the consumer has little choice except to seek out alternative products–which may not be readily available.
Public Health efforts are needed. In the meantime, you should look for your personal solutions. Here are a couple of suggestions:
LOOK AT LABELS: Locating sugar on food labels is much more difficult than finding sodium. You will readily recognize sucrose, cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup; but how about barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup?
GO LOCAL AND NATURAL: It’s more important than ever to eat fresh, local food and there is good reason to do so. Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables that you grow yourself or buy at your local farmer’s market.
WEAN YOURSELF: You’d be surprised at how quickly your tastes adjust once you start cutting back on sodium. Foods that you once added salt to will start tasting too salty. Getting off the sugar habit is not as easy. Limiting your consumption of soft drinks may be a good start.
The gleaming white crystals may be irresistible. But there is good reason to eliminate pre-packaged foods with ingredient lists that read like a Chemistry textbook.
Jaclyn Brice is a Certified Health Coach with Ministry Medical Group.