If you are more of a salty person, we have some bad news: sodium is contributing to the leading cause of death in New York City–heart disease. To declare the war on sodium, NYC and the National Salt Reduction Initiative are monitoring sodium levels in packaged food and restaurants.
Now, how does sodium affect our bodies? It is indeed an essential mineral that takes part in controlling our fluid balance and nerve impulses, but an excessive amount can cause serious implications. Excessive sodium pulls water into the bloodstream, increasing the volume of blood. When there is a larger amount of blood in the vessels, the pressure rises, resulting in high blood pressure, which deteriorates and stretches the blood vessels and tires out the heart, forcing it to pump more blood at higher rates. Imagine a stream getting flooded and causing soil corrosion to expand; after the stream normalizes the extra space is filled with debris.
But salt doesn’t only affect the heart. Kidneys filter the sodium and regulate overall mineral balance in our bodies. With excessive sodium intake, kidney failure can occur due to reduced kidney function caused by high amounts of salt putting extra strain on the filtering system. The less water is filtered and removed, the higher the blood pressure. Imagine a Brita Filter getting blocked over time: less clean water seeps into the jug, more dirty water stays stagnant in the body.
An average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, when the FDA recommended amount is 2,300 milligrams. In general, that number is proposed as an upper limit of sodium intake per day, a healthier amount should be no more than 1,500 milligrams.
According to the joint statement, more than 75 percent of sodium intake amongst Americans comes from packaged food and restaurants, which naturally limits the consumer control of its intake. To take action, NYC is the first city to add sodium content warnings on menus of chain restaurants next to dishes that contain 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more.
Kathryn Roberts, a Queens College student and waitress at Applebee’s, agreed that the new warnings on the menu seem to be working, “I definitely see how once in a while it can be effective, when people aren’t ordering off the top of their heads. Now when they look at the menu they’ll go ‘wow, that’s a heavy amount of salt,’ and they detour from choosing that one thing.”
Although, before the salt warnings, she claimed customers rarely asked about sodium levels. Most health related inquiries made by customers are either regarding calories or allergens.
However, she does expand on the people who choose to eat at chain restaurants, who are most likely not seeking a healthy meal. “Health conscious people never usually eat at this type of restaurant, but Applebee’s is different from most chains, and we have a low-calorie menu and we attract more health conscious people and we are likely to see people say ‘no’ to a high sodium dish.”
Roberts mentioned that when McDonald’s revealed their calorie count people had a strong reaction and it was expected for people to change the way they eat. “It’s similar with the sodium alerts, people will most likely continue eating how they were before. It detours them from eating certain things, but if you want a burger and you’re craving that burger, you’re probably going to get it anyway, regardless of any alerts.”
A salt lover from Brooklyn claims that everything is in some way bad for you if used in excessive amounts, however she doesn’t seem likely to change her sodium habits. “It’s hard to see the negative impact of these things, salt in particular, if after consumption, your blood pressure isn’t immediately raised, or its effects aren’t apparent.” Even though she understands excessive salt isn’t good, the sodium warnings will not affect her food choices at restaurants.
She sees the major issue being the price of foods. High sodium foods tend to be cheaper and overall more accessible in the city: deli foods, take-out, pizza, and other on-the-go bought snacks. “The biggest problem I see is the imbalance between healthy foods and cost. Warning us of how unhealthy foods are doesn’t impact their pricing, and does nothing but worry people.”
To learn how to cut down on salt and improve your everyday diet and sodium intake, the American Heart Association (AHA) has created a blog with recipes, information, and started a hashtag #BreakUpWithSalt to connect those interested in reducing their sodium amount and sharing their struggles or wins.
Some simple tips to start off with are: read nutrition labels and make sure you are not going over the recommended amount of sodium throughout the day, use herbs and other spices to flavor food instead of salt, and pay attention to what you order at restaurants.
With simple and easy adjustments, it is possible to improve heart and kidney health, however it will be irreversible damage if action is not taken.