Do You Think You Are Following a Low Salt Diet? You Probably Aren’t

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This week Time Magazine ran a really good article online by Tiffany Sharples about the pitfalls and difficulties of following a low salt diet. Here’s a link to it. If you are African American, a woman, have CHF (congestive heart failure) or high blood pressure, this would be a good link to follow.

Here’s the story of a patient of mine who had to dramatically cut his sodium intake after a stroke.

What Happened First

Many years ago, when I was doing home health care, I had a patient – we’ll call him Jack – who had a stroke. It left him wheelchair bound and paralyzed on the whole right side of his body. He had a history of uncontrolled high blood pressure for years before he finally had his stroke. In his case, though, his stroke wasn’t caused his high blood pressure; it was caused by a blood clot in his brain. Because of that, after the stroke, he had to stay on a blood thinner (warfarin aka Coumadin) for the rest of his life. I was going to his home to check his blood pressure and draw his blood to test whether his blood was too thick or too thin on the blood thinner.

What Does This Have to Do with Salt?

I’m getting to that. Because of the blood thinner it was very important that Jack’s blood pressure be well controlled. If his blood pressure got too high it could burst a blood vessel in his brain and, because of the blood thinners, that could cause a bleed in his brain that would probably kill him. So his doctor put him on a low sodium diet of less than 2000 mg of sodium per day.

Well – Jack loved salt! He salted everything. He salted food before he ever tasted it. He even salted high salt foods. But – Jack had a great wife! And when she brought him home from the hospital she took charge of his diet and ruled over it with an iron fist. She prepared all his food from scratch and saw to it that Jack didn’t get one milligram more than the sodium he was allowed.

What Happened Next

When I first went out to see Jack he was mad. I really understood the expression “spitting bullets” after I met Jack. He was miserable on the low salt diet. “Food is tasteless! Why did they keep me alive if I have to eat like this! I don’t care what happens; give me something that tastes good!” But his wife never wavered and I am happy to report his blood pressures were low normal – just where they were supposed to be.

Because I was drawing his blood every week or two, I saw Jack for 3 or 4 months. I deflected the bullets he was spitting for about 6 weeks as I recall. I think it was around then that he started talking about other things when I came to see him. He was settling into new routines and beginning to accept what had happened to him. His spirits improved and his fun and enthusiastic personality came out.

At around the three month point, as I was getting ready to discharge him, I realized he hadn’t complained about food in several weeks. So I asked him, “Jack, what’s the deal? You haven’t complained about the low salt diet in weeks.” And this is what he said:

The End of the Story

“You know, it’s funny, going from a lot of salt to low salt made food seem tasteless. But after a while my taste buds adjusted. If I went back now and salted food the way I used to I wouldn’t even be able to eat it. It would taste terrible.”

The Moral of the Story

Salt is an acquired taste and, as the Time article explains, much of the sodium we get in our diet is hidden in places we wouldn’t suspect. There are two problems with that:

  1. You are acquiring a taste for salt that you will want to keep feeding.
  2. We are all put at risk by consuming more than we should.

So what to do?

  • Try to cut back on salt and sodium.
  • Learn to read food labels – and read them!
  • Avoid fast, convenience and restaurant foods as much as possible.
  • The more you stick to real whole foods the more control you will have over what you consume.

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe or treat. For that please seek direct care from a health professional.

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