Opinion

Salt, sugar contribute to rise in heart disease, studies find | Gustafson

Several new studies focusing on heart health confirm that following certain dietary guidelines is crucial for preventing heart disease, one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Many, if not most, of these deaths could be avoided with appropriate diet and lifestyle changes.

High amounts of sodium (salt) and added sugars in processed and packaged foods are believed to be among the main culprits for the dramatic rise of the disease over the past few decades.

High sodium levels in the blood stream are a cause for high blood pressure, which, in turn, is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Decreasing sodium intake could prevent thousands of deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Consuming sugary foods and beverages also apparently adds to the risk of heart disease. A recent study on the health effects of added sugars in sodas, cakes, candy, and other sweetened foods found that participants were more likely to develop heart disease as their percentage of total calorie intake from sugars went up. In fact, those whose diet included more than 25 percent from added sugars almost tripled their risk.

According to the CDC, most of us consume way too much of both ingredients.

On average, Americans have a daily sodium intake of about 3,400 mg, significantly above the recommended limit of 2,300 mg, and more than twice the amount considered adequate, which is about 1,500 mg.

An estimated 16 to 20 percent of total daily calories in the typical American diet come from added sugars, according to the CDC. Curbing consumption could reduce calorie intake from nutritionally deficient sources and help prevent diseases associated with overweight and obesity, including heart disease.

Unfortunately, trying to make such reductions may prove difficult for consumers because the sources of sodium and sugars are not always easily identifiable. Even items that don't taste especially salty or sweet may still have high sodium and/or sugar contents.

Nutrition experts recommend to carefully read food labels. If the sodium amount per serving is 5 percent daily value or less, it is a low-sodium product. Everything over 20 percent daily value is considered high.

Because sugars are not required nutrients, there are no official limits or guidelines available. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that consumption should not exceed 25 percent of daily calories, an amount some experts still consider excessively high.

The best way to lower the risk of heart disease may be making gradual improvements to your meal plans by adding more fruits, vegetables and other fresh ingredients, while limiting or eliminating processed items as much as possible.

Another recent study on the subject revealed that a so-called "whole diet approach" that focuses on increased consumption of healthful foods can be more effective than, for example, being too concerned with fat content. Diet plans like DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or the Mediterranean-style diet seem especially helpful in this regard.

Like with most other diet and lifestyle-related health problems, it is unlikely that we will alter the current trends anytime soon. But better education and willingness to overcome ingrained preferences could eventually move us in the right direction.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook,Google+ and on Pinterest.

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