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Killer Salt

Cutting back on the white stuff may save your life, say Harvard Medical School researchers.

I’m in London this week, where the front page of the Times of London is carrying a picture of salt and a headline about how salt can kill–as if we need more evidence that sodium-laced processed foods are unhealthy for our hearts. But reading the paper over a typically salty English breakfast made me check my pulse.

Eating 25 to 35 percent less salt reduces a person’s chance of a heart attack by 25 percent, and it lowers the risk of premature death by 20 percent, according to a Harvard Medical School study led by researcher Nancy Cook. The 15-year study, published in the British Medical Journal, is the first to defiantly declare salt a health outlaw when overused. It puts to rest claims by the salt industry that its product is safe, and it should blunt the industry’s efforts to fight government campaigns here in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that encourage people to cut back.

The Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom wants to reduce people’s daily salt intake from an average of 9.5 grams to 6 grams (that’s one-third to one-fifth in quaint American ounces).

As the Times article explains, no one knows for sure why salt causes high blood pressure and increases the risk of stroke, although there’s most likely a simple explanation: it involves the inability of the kidney to pass an overabundance of sodium into the urine. Extra salt is then shunted into the blood stream, which sucks up excess water into the blood, increasing volume and pressure.

This adds new meaning to the Old Testament story about Lot fleeing from the destruction of Sodom. God, who was smiting the city, said, “Don’t you look back at Sodom, or I’ll turn you into salt.” Lot dutifully looked ahead, but his wife, Ildith, looked back–and promptly turned into a pillar of sodium. Which is apparently what will happen to me if I keep eating this Sodomic breakfast of salted ham, sausage, and eggs.

From now on I’m going to try to convince my salt-loving tongue to savor the taste of apples, lettuce, and other unsalty foods. My tongue is rebelling, but I’ll try to remain resolute. My life, like Lot’s, may depend on it.

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