Against the grain

Fad diets touted by fad nutritionists in search of their own television show differ widely on almost all basics, but agree on one common health-derailer: salt. Too much salt can harm as much as fat and sugar. And we eat far more than we should. Sanchita Sharma reports.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 14, 2009 22:52 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Fad diets touted by fad nutritionists in search of their own television show differ widely on almost all basics, but agree on one common health-derailer: salt.

In the universal obsession to cut back on fats, sugar and carbohydrates, most people forget to monitor their intake of salt, which finds insidious ways of creeping into the body.

The salt you eat (and don’t know about)

Some hidden sources of sodium are:
Processed meats, cold cuts
Chips, wafers, fries
Namkeen, savoury mixes, instant soups, noodles
Tinned food
Processed cheese, butter
Cakes, biscuits and other sweet confectionery

How much is too much?

Healthy adults should have less than 6 gm — one level teaspoon — of salt a day.
The World Health Organization recommends that an adult’s salt intake should be pushed below 5 mg a day by 2010.
A typical Indian diet has salt ranging between 10 mg and 15 mg, says the National Institute of Nutrition.
Nutritional labels on packaged foods list the sodium — not salt content — which can be misleading. To get the salt content, multiply the sodium value by 2.5.

In middle and upper-middle class homes in India, over 50 per cent of salt comes from packaged foods — such as breads, processed meats, cheese, biscuits and munchies like chips and namkeen.

A healthy adult shouldn’t have more than 6 gm of salt (one level teaspoon) a day, but most people in India have well over twice the amount. According to the National Institute of Nutrition, the salt content in a typical Indian diet ranges between 10 mg and 15 mg.

“A review of 1,701 healthy people (637 women and 1,064 men) who came for an executive health checkup at Sitaram Bhartia Institute, also had high levels of serum sodium, which indicates a high-salt diet. Even after factoring in advancing age, obesity and diabetes, we found levels of serum sodium significantly higher in people with high blood pressure,” said Dr JN Pande, senior consultant medicine at Sitaram Institute of Medical Sciences.

What’s worrying is that nutritional labels on packaged foods mislead many consumers. Nutritional labels list the sodium, not salt content, which is always higher. To get the salt content in a packaged food, multiply the sodium value by 2.5.

“One in three adults in urban India and one in five in rural India have hypertension (chronic high blood pressure), — a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but we still have too much salt,” said Dr Pande.

All the study participants were from a high socio-economic group and had no symptoms. The study has been published in the medical journal, Annals of the National Academy of Medical Sciences.

Excess salt also leads to water retention, adding up to a litre of water in the blood vessels at times. This not only makes you look plump but also adds to the volume of blood for the heart to pump.

“It’s well established that cutting down salt helps maintains blood pressure at healthy levels. When your pressure goes down, the risk of developing heart disease and stroke goes down too, irrespective of age,” said Dr Purshottam Lal, chief cardiologist, Metro Group of Hospitals. He cited a British Medical Journal study published last year that showed eating less salt can cut cardiovascular disease risk by a fourth and death by heart disease by a fifth over the following 10 to 15 years.

More than the fresh food cooked at home, what people need to watch out for is sodium in processed foods, which is found not only in salty foods but also in breads, biscuits and chocolate. Salt not only enhances taste and gives texture, but also binds in water, which helps manufacturers to add bulk to their product.

“Cutting back on processed foods is an easy way to monitor salt intake. Once the salt in the food goes down, so will your blood pressure,” says Dr Pande.

First Published: Feb 14, 2009 22:45 IST