(NewsUSA) - Salt is essential to keeping your body's fluids in balance. But too much salt can lead to a host of health problems.
The chemical name for dietary salt, or table salt, is sodium chloride. Most doctors focus on the sodium part.
"The best-known effect of sodium on health is the relationship between sodium and blood pressure," explains Dr. Catherine Loria of the National Institutes of Health.
Dozens of studies, in both animals and people, have shown that increasing salt intake can raise blood pressure. And high blood pressure has been linked to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and other health problems.
About one in three adults nationwide has high blood pressure. Another third have blood pressure numbers high enough to risk developing high blood pressure. That's why, Loria says, "it's really important for the majority of the population to reduce their blood pressure."
Experts recommend that people take in less than 2,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. People with high blood pressure should shoot for 1,500 mg or less. But right now, the average man in the United States takes in over 4,000 mg of salt per day, and the average woman over 2,800 mg.
Would you miss the taste? "Several studies have shown that as you gradually reduce sodium intake, you lessen your desire for salty food," Loria says. In the U.K., where salt consumption has dropped by 10 percent over the past five years, surveys found that most people didn't notice any difference in the taste of their food.
Most of the salt in the average American's diet comes in prepared and processed foods, including restaurant food, cold cuts and canned foods. Surprisingly, over 20 percent comes from grain products, such as breads, cereals, crackers and chips.
"I think the best guidance we have is for people to pay attention to nutrition facts on the labels," Loria says. Try to choose foods that list less than 5 percent of the daily value of sodium per serving on the nutrition facts label.
Even small reductions in salt can help your blood pressure. If you can't find a low-salt alternative to a particular food, try something that's lower than what you usually buy.
Why not start now? Make small changes at first, and then keep working to gradually lower your family's salt intake.
For more information, visit http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/.