Consuming less salt and sodium can significantly lower your risk of a heart attack

It's no wonder that Americans unintentionally consume more salt than they should. Salt is in almost everything, from bran muffins to salami to movie popcorn. And it's also in those little packets next to the ketchup and in that shaker in the middle of the table.

Why do we toss salt into so much of what we eat? Partly out of habit, partly because it makes food tastier, and also because our bodies require a small amount of sodium (the critical ingredient in salt) to regulate blood pressure and muscle and nerve function.

But as with many good things in life, too much salt can be bad for your health. Excess sodium causes the body to retain fluid, which can raise blood pressure to potentially dangerous levels and up your chances of a heart attack or stroke. The good news: There is strong evidence that reducing sodium intake even a little bit can significantly reduce that risk.

Getting Serious About Consuming Less Salt

The time has come to get serious about cutting back on salt. Recent research indicates that reducing salt intake may be as important to heart health as quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, or controlling high cholesterol.

A study published in the January 2010 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) estimated that slashing salt intake by 3 g a day—that's around half a teaspoon—could significantly lower your risk of having a first heart attack. Even reducing salt intake by as little as 1 g per day—about one fifth of a teaspoon—could have benefits as well.

Based on a sophisticated computer-simulation model, the researchers estimated that a 3-g reduction in salt intake might prevent as many as 99,000 heart attacks a year as well as up to 120,000 cases of coronary heart disease, 66,000 strokes, and 92,000 deaths. The corresponding numbers for a 1-g reduction are substantial, too, with up to 35,000 fewer heart attacks a year and 40,000, 23,000, and 32,000 fewer cases of coronary heart disease, strokes, and deaths, respectively.

Slowly Transition to a Low Sodium Diet

Cut down on salt gradually over a few weeks to make the transition easier. Research shows that a preference for salt can be unlearned and that it takes about six weeks to get accustomed to a lower-salt diet. The payoff —a healthier heart—is well worth it.

Publication Review By: Roger S. Blumenthal, M.D. and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 15 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 15 Jan 2015