The dietary salt conversation continues

Many have heard about the dangers of high salt consumption when it comes to heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and stomach cancer. But there is a new concern on the horizon, that concern being autoimmune disease.

As recently reported in the weekly science journal Nature, salt may be a trigger that leads to an autoimmune disease. This occurs when the immune response is exaggerated and the body attacks its own tissue.

The researchers found that when mouse cells were grown in a high-salt environment, the cells over produced another type of specialty cell that under normal conditions helps fight infection. When the body is under attack from bacteria, viruses, or other microbes, these special cells contribute to inflammation, a natural response to fight infection and kill the microbes. A fever, for example, is a type of inflammatory response to help kill bacteria.

But in the high-salt environment used in the study, the inflammatory response was magnified. And this increased immune activity can lead to autoimmune disease.

In a related study the researchers fed a high-salt diet to mice that were bred specifically to develop multiple sclerosis. These mice went on to develop a more severe form of the disease. Similar mice fed a diet lower in salt did not have the same response.

Of course, there are other factors besides salt that contribute to inflammation. The level of vitamin D in one’s diet, one’s own metabolism, various microbes, smoking, and environmental factors can all play a role. The findings of the studies published in Nature, although interesting, are have yet to be applied to humans. And whether the results apply to all autoimmune conditions or not is yet to be determined.

Lowering one’s salt intake is certainly a healthy goal, though, when the consumption of salt is higher than what one needs. Current recommendations from the Food and Drug Administration are that daily sodium intake should not be greater than 2300 milligrams

Based on information gathered from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, the top food groups that contribute 40% of the sodium in our diets are: breads, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soups, sandwiches (including hamburgers), cheese, pasta dishes, meat dishes, and snacks such as potato chips.

In the above survey sodium content was greater in foods that were purchased outside the home, whether from stores or restaurants, when compared to foods prepared at home and salted to taste.

To decrease salt intake, become a label reader. Look for the term sodium on the Nutrition Facts label. And try the online salt calculator developed by University of Toronto professor JoAnne Arcand with researchers from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. This may be a real eye-opener for readers.



What I am reading

There are so many articles about nutrition and food that pop up everyday, it is hard to keep up. Here are a few that I have found interesting or helpful.

Your Easter Candy Cheat Sheet found on Calorie Count gives an idea of how many calories in your Easter treats. Quite an eye-opener. Munch responsibly!

After the Easter dinner and candy treats, take a walk. This is good not only for your body, but also for your brain. Easing Brain Fatigue with a Walk in the Park points to the benefit of walking in a park or similar area to lessen brain fatigue. This is a good read.

And if you are eating out this weekend, consider this article on menu calorie counts: How Accurate are Chain Restaurant Calorie Counts?.

Snacking as a healthy practice

Can snacks be part of a healthy eating plan? Let’s face it. Most people enjoy snacks. If the snack contributes to one’s overall energy and nutrient needs without adding a lot of calories, what’s the harm, right?

According to a report from the NPD Group, a market research firm, fruit is the number one choice in America for snacks. This is good news. Chocolate was next in line. Ok, a small amount of dark chocolate can be heart healthy. Potato chips came in third. This choice is not as gratifying as the first two because it is easy to eat chips mindlessly and end up eating an entire bag with few nutrients to show for the effort (or lack, thereof).

Results from a study in 2011 attribute the rise in calorie intake in our country to eating more often. This suggests that snacks play a role in overeating, which then encourages weight gain.

It doesn’t look good for snacks, until one considers another factor, that of timing.  

Researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle used data from a study with overweight and obese postmenopausal women, 50 to 75 years of age. This study showed that women who had mid-morning snacks lost less weight than those women who did not snack before lunch.

The researchers suggested that eating a snack too close to a main meal may result in fewer pounds lost when dieting. On the other hand, long intervals between meals might be better handled with a snack to relieve hunger and prevent overeating at the next meal.

Interestingly, other findings showed that the women who ate more than two snacks each day consumed more fiber than the women who ate fewer in-between meal snacks. And afternoon snackers consumed more fruits and veggies than those who refrained. So there can be a health benefit to indulging between meals.

Everybody likes snacks from kids to teens to adults. Here are a few guidelines.

  • Consider when your next meal is. If the meal is less      than 30 minutes away, have a glass of water or a cup of tea. If you need      something to chew, have a small salad.       When hunger strikes and the meal is one to two hours away, keep the      snack around 100 calories or less. Baby carrots, cucumber slices, and green pepper      sticks can be prepared ahead and kept in the fridge.
  • Try to satisfy the textures you crave in a healthy way.      For example, if a crunchy or salty food is what you crave, select whole      grain crackers. Or try an apple with peanut butter for combo of textures      and added protein. A small handful of nuts adds protein and also      contributes fiber and healthy fat. Be sure to stop at a small handful,      though.
  • Low-fat yogurt and small portions of cheese are      satisfying snacks. Check out the lower fat versions of cheese in the diary      case.
  • If you really want a sweet, chewy snack, and it is some      time before the next meal, choose snack or energy bars with about five      grams of fiber and protein, and no more than two or three grams of      unsaturated fat.

For more suggestions, visit the American Heart Association for tips on satisfying different snacking tastes and for eating on the go. The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics has tips for families and teens.