We’ve all heard for most of our lives that salt intake is linked to increased blood pressure and heart disease. For many years, the “magic number” for salt intake has been 2 grams, or 2,000mg. However, a new study published in Open Heart (an online cardiology journal), indicates that salt may not be as much of the culprit as we have always thought it was. Researchers now say that highly processed refined sugar may be more dangerous to our blood pressure than salt.
High blood pressure (or hypertension) has been named a major primary contributor to as many as 340,000 deaths in the United States in 2009 alone! As a result, controlling high blood pressure has become a national public health initiative. The data published in this recent article encompasses over 100,000 patients. Findings suggest that diets containing less than 3,000mg of sodium actually do more harm than good. Those diets that contained 3,000-6,000 mg of sodium per day were associated with lower risk of death and cardiovascular events. Patients consuming less than 3,000mg or more than 6,000mg of sodium per day were at higher risk.
What is the culprit? Processed foods. Not only are these foods high in sodium, they also have huge amounts of overly refined carbohydrates, which break down into sugars. The researchers say this in regard to these sugars: “Compelling evidence from basic science, population studies, and clinical trials implicate sugars, and particularly the monosaccharide fructose, as playing a major role in the development of hypertension. Moreover, evidence suggests that sugars in general and fructose in particular may contribute to overall cardiovascular risk through a variety of mechanisms.”
Ingesting only ONE 24-ounce soft drink could raise your blood pressure by 15 points on the top number and 9 points on the bottom number, and increase your heart rate by 9 beats per minute. This higher intake of sugar causes a significant increase in blood pressure. Consuming 25% or more of your daily calories from added sugar triples the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. Researchers also add that even moderate increases in sugar intake for short periods of time may cause substantial harm.
In the U.S. today, the average person consumes 2-8 times more than recommendations from the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization. This number is significantly higher in teens, up to as much as 16 times greater. Most of the American diet is made up of foods that come from store shelves, and contains large amounts of these overly processed sugars.
“But what about fructose coming from fruits?” you may ask. Fructose in its naturally occurring form, such as that found in whole foods, is not only less harmful, it is beneficial. Our bodies need some sugars for energy and fuel.
So what are some simple changes you can make in your diet to replace some of the sodas and other foods high in refined sugars? The naturally occurring fructose found in apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and other fruits is a good place to start. Stay away from processed fruit drinks and juices. These are likely full of the same high-fructose corn syrup as the soft drinks they may be intended to replace. Instead of a candy bar for a snack, choose an apple with some peanut butter, or grapes with cheese. These are good sources of complex carbohydrates, which break down into energy that our bodies can use.
One of my favorite quotes from the researchers is this: “Just as most dietary sodium does not come from the salt shaker, most dietary sugar does not come from the sugar bowl. Reducing consumption of added sugars by limiting processed foods containing them, made by corporations would be a good place to start.”
As we go into a new year, let’s hit restart on our diets and give our bodies a reset. The best treatment for disease is prevention. The changing eating habits can be a daunting task, and looks impossible if you are trying to make all the changes at once. Instead, make one simple and manageable adjust at a time. If you chose only one thing each month, you could change 12 things in a year. That may not seem like a lot, but you’d be surprised how much better you feel at the end of it. I for one intend to make some simple changes again this year to improve my health, and help prevent the diseases that are claiming the lives of so many (both members of my family, and patients I see every day in the acute care setting).
By: Rachel Clark, RN, BSN