Those little white granules look so pretty and 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, 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 and Prevention. 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, which puts them at extra risk of strokes, heart attacks, and kidney disease.
If your doctor 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 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 who don’t have hypertension. Modeling studies estimate that lowering average sodium intake to this level could prevent 11 million cases of hypertension.
Some experts are saying that sugar is an even greater danger, not just for its role in weight gain, but also because it makes excess sodium even more harmful.
A review in the journal Open Heart concluded that high consumption of added sugars in the American diet was more strongly associated with hypertension than was excess sodium.
When you eat sugar or any high-carbohydrate food, your body responds by releasing insulin, a hormone that allows glucose to enter body cells to be used as energy. Another effect of insulin is to prompt your kidneys to retain sodium. As a result, a diet high in sugar means increased levels of insulin and changes in the kidneys that can increase blood pressure.
Our bodies need energy from carbohydrates, but 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 easily are linked to the increased prevalence of obesity and overweight that is occurring. In the bloodstream, excess sugar causes dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Some doctors 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. Because sugar and salt already are 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, look for personal solutions:
Look at labels. Locating sugar on food labels is much more difficult than finding sodium. You readily will 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 fashionable at the moment to eat fresh, local foods, and there is good reason to do so. Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables that you grow or buy at your local farmers 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.
To learn more about how you can cut sugar and salt from your diet, contact Dr. Jequita Snyder of Mercy Clinic Family Medicine, 10 S. Treaty Road, Miami, at 918-238-3075.