Most people consume a lot of salt without even being aware of it

“Salt, salt, salt,” said Nancy Spaeth, four-time renal transplant recipient, to her audience. Most of us are eating too much salt and it has serious consequences for our health that surface without warning.

That was a key message in the Krishnan Ang Tanker Foundation Endowment lecture she delivered on the topic ‘A Good Life with Kidney Disease.’ Having lived with kidney disease for decades, Ms. Spaeth, a nurse, knows what she is talking about when she says we need to cut our salt intake.

Should we really worry about the amount of salt we are taking? Absolutely. The next time you are at a store, or at a kiosk in a railway station or bus stand, take a look at all those packaged snacks that beckon with alluring packaging, ethnic flavours and funny names. Almost all of them are salted, and that too, heavily. We don’t live in that part of the world where ‘low sodium’ is really on.

But the point is this. “The maximum sodium chloride or common salt a healthy person needs in a day is 4 grams,” says Dr. Georgi Abraham, one of the senior nephrologists in the country, and the founder-trustee of Tanker Foundation, which offers affordable dialysis.

Yet, most people consume a lot more, without even being aware of it. So what is the problem with having a little excess salt? That question is answered with missionary zeal and great clarity by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a Japanese professor of medicine, whose publication in the journal ‘Nephron’ in 2001 on ‘Salt, Kidney and Hypertension’ is the most lucid on the subject.

What Professor Kurokawa points out in his article is that high blood pressure is directly linked to salt intake, because it raises the body’s fluid volume. He presents the fascinating story of tribal communities — the Zulu of Africa, the Papua New Guineans and the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon — that use very little salt. Their blood pressure does not significantly rise with age, and ‘essential hypertension’ (occurring without any specific secondary cause such as a disease) is not encountered.

What distinguishes us, ‘modern’ humans, is our acquired taste for salt — one that is fed constantly by the packaged food industry. That taste is raising our blood pressure silently, and scarring our internal organs like the heart and kidneys. As we grow old, our taste buds go a little dull to salt, and we need more of it (papad, pickles) to feel satisfied. The problem worsens.

The evidence that Professor Kurokawa presents for his thesis is robust. He found that areas of Japan where salt consumption was higher had proportionately higher sales of anti-hypertension medications, and equally, those with low consumption had lower sales, adjusted for the population. Remember also, that Japan has a good healthcare system, and we don’t.

Living in a country with a system dominated by high-cost, for-profit healthcare, we should be aware of the harm that our lifestyle is doing to us. Rates of diabetes and hypertension are growing, leading to organ failure, and our eating habits only hasten the decline. Air-conditioning combined with high-salt diets is a double whammy for blood pressure.

Disease is impoverishing in every way. Our food industry is certainly unlikely to turn a new leaf on its own, and cut the salt. Our law is so weak that brands do not even say on the package labels, how much sodium the food contains. We need the law changed. For now, the only real option is to say ‘no’. Cut the salt, at home, in hotels and in your packaged food, and spare your organs the deadly scars.

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