This past week, the U.S. government advised more than half of Americans to cut their daily salt intake drastically. What do you think about that? – Theresa S., Bellevue, Wash.

The Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments just recommended that those who are at risk for high blood pressure consume less than a half-teaspoon of salt a day (these consumers include African-Americans, anyone older than 51 and anyone who suffers from hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease). The rest of us can stick to the teaspoon-a-day guideline of 2,300 milligrams, which is still about one-third less than the average person actually consumes.

Despite the fact that I don’t think the government should be telling us how to eat, the advice is sound.

It’s easy to see why most Americans need to cut down on sodium, because about 75 percent of it is consumed in our processed foods, snacks and fast foods. And we all know that higher levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

We will feel better and live longer if we follow the guidelines given:

  • Read nutrition labels closely, and buy items labeled low in sodium.
  • Use little or no salt when cooking or eating.
  • Consume more fresh or home-prepared foods and fewer processed foods so you know exactly what you are eating.
  • Ask that salt not be added to foods at restaurants.
  • Gradually reduce sodium intake over time to get used to the taste.<./li>

Other recommendations in the guidelines are similar to those of previous years, including limiting trans fats, reducing calorie intake from solid fats and added sugars, eating fewer refined grains and more whole grains and consuming less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. The guidelines also recommend eating fewer than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats – full-fat cheese and fatty meats, for example.

At the same time that we watch out for sodium overconsumption, we must keep ourselves from polarizing to the other extreme. We must refuse the fad – among even naturalists – to rid our diets completely of salt, because we do need sufficient amounts of sodium and iodine for the optimal operation of our bodies.

Part of the reason our bodies crave salt is our blood is 0.9 percent salt, which maintains the delicate balance of sodium throughout almost every system in our bodies. That is why the National Academy of Sciences advises that we consume at least 500 milligrams of sodium daily. And University of California, Berkeley health experts say our intake should be limited to 2,400 milligrams of iodized salt. Still, they conclude, there is no recommended daily allowance for sodium.

“The minimum amount you need for good health is only about 115 milligrams a day” (a quarter-teaspoon contains about 500 milligrams of sodium and about 100 micrograms of iodine).

Chuck, I’ve heard that sea salt is the way to go. Natural, right? – “Under the Sea,” Monterey, Calif.

That’s a little trickier to answer. Let me explain.

Believe it or not, once upon a time, American society was salt-deprived – or, better put, iodine-deprived. Hence, iodized salt was introduced in 1922 and went far to correct U.S. deficiencies (about 2 billion people around the world are still deficient).

Today most people buy iodized table salt and don’t think about it twice. But similar to the way sugar and flour are refined, table salt is chemically stripped to sodium chloride (containing 40 percent sodium), which removes some of its natural minerals.

At the same time, sea salt is not a good source of iodine, because it is lost in the process of evaporating the seawater. Naturalists believe, however, that the American diet is so full of iodized table salt that one is bound to get all the iodine one needs. And generally speaking, that would be true, until one finds out that the salt used in much of our processed food is not iodized.

How much iodine and sodium a person needs varies, depending on genetics, lifestyle and daily routine. For example, an expectant mother is not encouraged to go on a low-salt diet because of the critical need for iodine in the development of a baby. Deficiencies can cause cretinism in babies.

Iodine is the critical component in salt and is essential in the formation of the thyroid hormone thyroxine, which governs metabolism and physical and mental development. The thyroid gland of a healthy adult stores much of the body’s iodine – 75 percent of the body’s 20 to 30 milligrams of the mineral.

Low iodine intakes can cause insufficient production of thyroid hormones, which, in turn, can cause fatigue, delayed reflexes, hoarseness, skin changes, increases in blood fats and reduced mental abilities.

So, to answer the question, there are nominal differences between table salt and sea salt, though the health consequences of ingesting too much of either are essentially the same. Still, many gourmets and naturalists prefer sea salt, not only because of its taste but also because it’s simply natural.

One caution: If you do opt for sea salt and are super-strict in your diet on salt intake, you’ll need to get your iodine from other sources, such as seafood (ironic because iodine is depleted from sea salt) or dairy products. Iodine levels in fruits and vegetables depend upon the soil in which they are grown.

As always, check with your private physician or health practitioner for what is best for your personal application.

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