Trim the amount of salt in your diet to lower your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension.) That's been healthy advice for years, but most people don't heed it.

"Our bodies require just a tiny amount of sodium - 500 milligrams (mg) per day, or the quantity found in 1/4 teaspoon of salt. And yet the average American consumes eight times this minimum amount," says Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D. author of "Blood Pressure Down." She adds, "Excess sodium consumed in the diet will lead to high blood pressure in most individuals. In fact, a whopping 90 percent of us will eventually develop high blood pressure from a lifetime of too much salt."

Unhealthy blood pressure levels cause an estimated 62 percent of all strokes and 49 percent of all cases of heart disease. And one-third of our population has pre-hypertension, an early form of the disease, which puts you at risk for heart attacks and stroke.

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High sodium intake goes beyond just raising your risk for hypertension, heart disease, and stroke, however. New evidence shows salt can damage your arteries, bones, kidneys, blood, and even your stomach, both dependent or independent of high blood pressure, reports Brill.

How low to go?

A report issued in May 2013 on salt intake by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) confused the issue over how much sodium you should aim for in your diet.

Previously, the IOM had recommended a sodium intake of 2,300 mg (about one teaspoon of salt) per day, and further restriction to 1,500 mg per day for adults at higher risk (older than age 51, African-Americans and people with hypertension, diabetes or kidney disease). But the IOM's new report states there was no rationale for people to aim for a sodium intake of less than 2,300 mg per day, thus the level of restriction is unnecessary.

This announcement sparked controversy among many public health experts, who supported lower sodium levels for at-risk individuals. And the worst-case scenario arose when news headlines across the country announced that cutting back on salt is no longer needed.

However, it's important to remember most Americans far exceed the 2,300 mg sodium target, putting themselves at risk for disease. At the very minimum, you should keep your sodium intake under this level as your best bet for optimal health.

Put sodium in its place

Keeping your sodium intake below 2,300 mg per day may be easier said than done, however, considering the enormous amounts of sodium found in some foods; many prepared soups, entrees and side dishes in supermarkets contain at least 1,000 mg per serving, and restaurant meals can provide more than 5,000 mg.

In fact, processed and prepared foods account for 77 percent of the sodium in our diets; only 10 percent of our average sodium intake comes from naturally occurring salt in foods, and only five to 10 percent from the salt shaker.

Looks can be deceiving when it comes to sodium levels in foods.

"People need to beware of relying too much on their taste buds to detect the sodium. There are plenty of foods with unacceptable levels of sodium that don't necessarily taste salty," says Brill, who adds a large shake at McDonald's contains almost double the amount of sodium as an order of large french fries.

There's only one way to really know for sure how much sodium is in your favorite foods. Check the nutrition facts label on all products before you drop them in your shopping cart. The Percent Daily Value (percent DV) for sodium, based on 100 percent of the recommended amount of sodium for the day, is a good guide for keeping your sodium in check.

If a product contains 5 percent DV or less for sodium, it's considered a low-sodium product; 20 percent DV or higher means it's a high sodium food. If most of your foods are low-sodium selections - good job! - you're on your way to meeting your sodium target.


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