To Your Health

I am trying to convince my husband to reduce his salt intake. He doesn't have high blood pressure, but it does run in his family. What reasons can I give him?

Q. I am trying to convince my husband to reduce his salt intake. He doesn't have high blood pressure, but it does run in his family. What reasons can I give him?

A. Salt contains sodium and chloride, and both are essential nutrients. In more primitive eras good salt was hard to come by, and it became valuable both for health and as currency. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which they could trade for anything else they needed, hence our word "salary."

As with many of life's situations, the problem with salt is a matter of balance. Most of the potassium in our bodies stays inside our cells and most of the sodium is in the water between cells. Dietary sodium must be balanced with potassium since the body maintains control over a lot of its functions by controlling the flow of sodium and potassium in and out of cells. Today it is so easy to get plenty of sodium (salt) that our major project is to keep from getting too much and to get enough potassium to maintain a balance.

The best way to get plenty of potassium is to eat generous amounts of fresh raw fruits and vegetables while limiting convenience foods (also watch for sneaky sodium in soft drinks). For those who are unwilling to consume sufficient amounts of high-potassium foods, potassium is also available in pill form, but there is a limit of 99 milligrams per pill set by the Food and Drug Association. This translates to taking six-10 pills per day to obtain a reasonable amount of potassium. There is about 600 mg of potassium as potassium chloride in one teaspoon of the salt substitute that heart patients use but the taste offends some, plus there is evidence that the chloride contributes to increased blood pressure.

There are animal studies indicating that increased dietary potassium reduces the risk of stroke even when blood pressure is not elevated, so your husband would be wise to make the changes toward higher potassium and lower sodium now, before elevated blood pressure becomes a concern. Even after reduction of dietary sodium has lowered blood pressure somewhat, increased potassium will lower blood pressure still more.

Other benefits for those who increase their potassium and decrease sodium include reduced risk of kidney stones and osteoporosis. Reduced urinary calcium may be the reason for both of these benefits, since calcium is the major component of the majority of kidney stones. Male or female, anyone who has suffered a kidney stone is willing to do almost anything to avoid repeating that experience. In terms of osteoporosis risk, generous potassium intake may be more important for women than men, but osteoporosis is a definite menace for older men as well.

It is the rare individual who would not benefit from increasing fruit and vegetable intake in order to increase dietary potassium, but people taking certain medications should not try to increase their potassium. If your husband is taking any medications, especially for heart or kidney problems, he should ask his physician before taking potassium supplements. Some people with serious kidney failure, and some diabetics, simply cannot tolerate increased potassium from any source.

You have an excellent opportunity now to assist your husband to improve his health by modifying your cooking habits to emphasize the fresh raw or lightly steamed vegetables and avoiding the typically salty convenience foods. It will mean more kitchen time, but think of it as an investment in the health of the whole family.

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