Eat Less Salt

Hypertension is the biggest risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

by Lim Wey Wen

The latest addition to the list of 'dos' and 'don’ts' to prevent heart disease is simple enough : eat less salt.

According to a joint WHO (World Health Organisation)/FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) expert consultation technical report on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease, a 3g reduction in daily salt intake would result in a 20% drop in deaths from stroke and a 15% reduction of deaths from heart disease.

Now, this is not groundbreaking discovery, but it is good news. If you compare that to huffing and puffing on your living room elliptical for 30 to 60 minutes several times a week, or reducing the number of times you slip out for a quick burger, merely eating less salt seems like a walk in the park!

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Salt intake is greatly linked to blood pressure and increased risk of hypertension. Hypertension (high blood pressure), in turn, is the biggest single risk factor for heart disease and stroke which affects a billion people worldwide. This, together with other risk factors - like high cholesterol and glucose levels, smoking, inadequate intake of fruit and vegetables, being overweight, obesity and physical inactivity - account for about 80% of deaths from heart disease and stroke.

Blood pressure is very sensitive to dietary (habits), even to medications. Even a small difference in population blood pressure, about 2-4 mmHg, can have a huge impact on heart attack or stroke risks.

Reduce Salt Intake

While many people know (of the association between salt intake and hypertension), not many are taking the trouble to reduce their (salt) intake.

Perhaps it is the way our taste buds sing when they devour salt-rich french fries, or the way our nasi lemak will not be complete without a healthy helping of sambal ikan bilis (anchovies). Either way, Malaysians love our sodium chloride (table salt) and MSG (monosodium glutamate).

To make matters worse, there is plenty of hidden salt in our food, which consumer associations describe - along with sugar as 'white poison'.

When most people think of salt, they think of sprinkling it on their food, or adding a pinch to cooking. And it is important to try to get out of the habit of using salt in this way. However, we also need to be careful about the salt we can’t see.

But Exactly How Much Is Too Much Salt?

The WHO recommends a maximum quantity of 5g of salt a day, which is about a teaspoonful. That is not a large amount, considering that three-quarters (75%) of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy (including processed foods such as ready meals, sauces, baked beans and pizza).

That leaves just a quarter teaspoonful before we hit our salt limit for the day - hardly any room for the liberal use of soy sauce on our plate of char koay teow.

However, here are few simple ways suggested by the FSA to reduce the amount of salt without having to resort to bland, saltless dishes for dinner.

The food we buy, including proces sed foods like pizza, contains 75% of the salt we eat.

When you cook :

* Add fresh herbs, black pepper, garlic ginger, chilli or lime in stir fries to reduce the need for a lot of salt.

* Marinate meat and fish to give them more flavour.

* Make your own stock and gravy instead of using cubes or granules, or look out for reduced-salt varieties of instant gravy.

When you eat :

* Go for reduced-salt back bacon in your bacon sandwich. Try adding some slices of tomato instead of ketchup.

* Snack on fruit, plain popcorn or unsalted nuts and seeds, instead of crisps or crackers.

* Go easy with ketchup, soy sauce, mustard, pickles and mayonnaise - these can all be high in salt.

* Try not to add salt automatically when you’re cooking or about to eat. Often people only use salt out of habit.

When you eat in a restaurant or order a takeaway :

* Choose vegetable or chicken toppings instead of pepperoni, bacon or extra cheese when you order a pizza.

* Go for fillings such as chicken salad or poached salmon at the sandwich bar, instead of ham or cheese and pickle, which are usually higher in salt.

* Go for plain rice if you’re having a Chinese or Indian meal, because this is lower in salt than egg-fried rice or pilau rice.

* Try not to have salty fries too often - you could have a jacket potato instead.

* Ask for the dressing on the side when you have a salad, so you only have as much as you need. Some dressings can be high in salt, as well as fat.

With these low-salt eating habits incorporated into your lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing and dying from heart disease or stroke. However, it also takes regular exercise, a balanced diet and routine medical checkups to protect your heart against heart disease.

As World Heart Federation President Prof Shahryar Sheikh put it, "We have only one heart, and the heart disease today is predictable, preventable and treatable. The problem is that you can’t see the problem from the outside. Let us keep our risk score for heart disease low.

It is never too early and never too late to start taking care of your heart."

More info on SALT here.

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