That is what some researchers from Finland are claiming. Basing themselves on the sales figures for salt in the United States and the rate of obesity in Americans, they found that salt plays a leading role in this alarming trend.
It is already a well known fact that a diet high in salt raises blood pressure to such an extent that it can cause an illness, increasing our risk of suffering from strokes and cardiovascular diseases. However, the correlation between salt consumption and weight increase has never been pin pointed.
The Finnish researchers observed that, back in the mid 1980’s, salt consumption started increasing in the United States, jumping by more than 50% in the last 15 years. It was actually on a downward slope before 1983. They suggest that this increase in salt consumption inevitably culminated in an increase in thirst. In fact, the sales for drinks, often rich in sugar and calories, escalated dramatically around the same time.
They estimate that between 1977 and 2001, the calorie intake from sugary drinks climbed by an average of 135%, while decreasing by 38% for milk. The effect of this change in consumer habits directly translated to an intake of approximately 278 extra calories per day. To burn this surplus of calories, every American should walk or run their vacuum cleaner for more than one hour and ten minutes per day, which few of them actually do.
People started gaining weight slowly but steadily. And as we know today, the results are staggering! In the United States, the decade of 1976-1980 to 1988-1994 saw an increase in the number of obese persons of 61% in men and 52% in women. The data from 1999-2002 are even more astounding. When we compare it with the data from 1976-1980, the number of obese people increased by 120% in men and 99% in women! Hence the use of the term “obesity epidemic”.
Most of us ingest much too much salt. To decrease our salt consumption, we must avoid adding salt to the food we prepare and leave the salt shaker in the cupboard, not on the table. Many people have the bad habit of adding salt before even tasting their food! Despite it all, our salt shakers are not the main source of salt in our foods. Salt primarily comes from the refined foods we purchase in the central aisles of supermarkets (crackers, croutons, soups, frozen dinners, canned vegetables, cold cuts, chips, pretzels and other appetizers) or from prepared foods. By choosing fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, dried legumes, grains, meats and fish, and by experimenting with spices, herbs and condiments, it is quite possible to achieve an important decrease in salt consumption.
Lowering our consumption of salt is not at all dangerous, quite the contrary. The Finnish researchers actually found that in Finland, a moderate decrease of 30 to 35% in salt consumption over a period of 30 years enabled the decrease of adults dying from stroke or from heart diseases by 75 to 80%. The life expectancy during this period increased by 6 to 7 years, for both men and women. They estimate that the effects of blood pressure lowering medications only represent 10% of the benefits observed, the remainder being attributed to a change in lifestyle habits.
The salt hypothesis by the Finnish researchers is very plausible and merits serious consideration. Our collective efforts to counter the obesity epidemic could profit from this new way of looking at the problem.
So put down the salt shakers & soft drinks, eat a variety of fresh foods, put your running shoes on and get some fresh air!