Weight-Loss Secret: Get Rid of Hidden Sodium

Get rid of the hidden sodium in your diet and you'll unlock the secret to better health and faster weight loss.
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The Lowdown on Sodium

Kym Sosolik of Dallas was just 43, but already her doctor was sounding alarm bells. She was 50 pounds overweight and her blood pressure was a sky-high 190/102. She dutifully took the drugs he prescribed, but her pressure only dropped to 140/92 . Even after she lost 20 pounds by exercising two to three times a week and eating better, her blood pressure was still above normal.

So last year Sosolik hired a personal trainer for an exercise and lifestyle overhaul. Among other things, he suggested she try cutting back on sodium. "I thought I had," she says. "I'd stopped salting my food."

Then she checked the label on the turkey in her lunchtime wrap: 380 milligrams of sodium. "I was shocked to find that much sodium in two slices of turkey," she says. And two flavored rice cakes, her supposedly safe diet snack, turned out to have more than 200 milligrams.

Sosolik had run up against one of the nation's most overlooked nutritional traps: salt you never see. Though adults are supposed to eat no more than 2,300 milligrams a day (around a teaspoon of table salt), according to the Department of Health and Human Services they get more than 3,400. Americans' sodium intake rose 55 percent between the early 1970s and 2000 and shows no sign of falling. The vast majority of that sodium -- close to 80 percent -- is hidden inside processed and restaurant foods. You don't notice it, you may not even taste it, but it can undermine your health.

Doctors worry most about the 73 million Americans (more than half of them women) who already have high blood pressure, as well as the countless more on the cusp of developing it who could be pushed over the edge by eating too much salt. In 2007 the American Medical Association called reducing sodium consumption an "urgent" public health need. Just this March, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, concluded that if Americans cut just 40 milligrams of sodium per day, about 250,000 fewer cases of heart disease would occur over the next decade.

Even if your blood pressure isn't hypertension high, it may be higher than it should be because of the salt in your diet, says Linda Van Horn, PhD, of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Scientists have found that even people who don't have high blood pressure may reduce their risk of heart disease by eating less sodium. And when Harvard Medical School studied what happened when people with scores only on the high side of normal cut back, their risk of cardiovascular disease decreased by 25 percent, says associate professor Nancy Cook, ScD.

Based on such findings, in January 2009 the New York City health commissioner began an initiative to pressure the food industry and restaurant chains to use less sodium (the city had already banned trans fats). In the United Kingdom, government health authorities have printed salt content on food packaging since 2004, using color-coded labels (stoplight red is high salt; yellow is medium; green, low). Some U.S. physician groups want similar labels here.

Industry reps respond that sodium content is clearly listed on products and that more products come in low-sodium versions. "Total diet over time matters more than the sodium content of a single food," adds Robert Earl, MPh, RD, vice president of science policy for nutrition and health at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Continued on page 2:  Shaking Old Habits


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