Monday, March 29, 2010

Table Salt Costing Americans $8 Billion per Gram?

A study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that if Americans would reduce their consumption of table salt by only 1/2 a teaspoon daily (3 grams), overall US spending on healthcare could be reduced by as much as $24 billion annually. And cutting only 1 gram per day would be far more cost effective in reducing blood pressure among hypertensive individuals than common prescription medications. Aside from the cost of treatment of chronic conditions directly related to the excessive consumption of salt, this tiny reduction (3 grams per day) would reduce annual new cases of coronary heart disease, stroke and heart attack by half. Just to put this in perspective, that would be some 146,000 fewer new cases per year.

My first reaction to this was along the lines of "Why then should people who responsibly monitor their diets be forced to fund the "right" of those who do not to treatment for their self-inflicted illnesses?" As is often the case with my first reactions, while it contains a grain of truth there is much more to the story.

According to the NEJ article, 75% - 80% of the salt we consume is "hidden" in the processed foods we eat. There are no requirements that restaurants disclose the salt content in, or added to, the foods they serve. According to one Center for Science in the Public Interest study, some single fast food meals contain as much as four times the total recommended daily salt intake.

Nutritional labeling requirements in the USA are a sick (literally) joke. They are still based on the 65 year old minimum daily requirement standard, and are written in such a way that one cannot help but wonder if they are deliberately intended to confuse rather than inform. (Why would a can of chili provide labeling based on servings and then put 2 1/2 servings in the can? Can most people do that math in their heads?) Perhaps its time we took a real interest in being provided with the basic information we need to make good nutritional choices for ourselves, instead of relying on the government and the food industry to keep us informed? Seriously this is a disgrace.

Addicted to Eating?

As the obesity rate among Americans climbs past 1-in-3 (with over 2-in-3 of us classified as overweight) several initiatives are exploring the nature of our relationship with food..... physically, emotionally and socially. In one study done on rats and published in the research journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at Scripps Research Institute in Florida concluded that eating a lot of junk food makes you want to eat more junk food. "The animals completely lost control over their eating behavior, the primary hallmark of addiction," said neuroscientist Paul Kenny in a statement describing the work.

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, in his 2009 book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, says that food is excessively activating the brains of millions of Americans to get them to come back to eat more. He especially blames fat, sugar and salt, combined with effective marketing campaigns, super-sizing of portions and relaxed social mores related to how and where we consume food.

With 3 in 4 Americans scheduled to die of heart disease, cancer or stroke, and with rates of Type II Diabetes soaring (it is now being commonly diagnosed in children as young as 10 years old), maybe it is time to take a hard look at the dietary and lifestyle choices that are largely responsible for our "healthcare crisis". Possibly the most effective way to reduce America's unsustainable heathcare costs would be in invest in helping people to recognize, treat and recover from our addiction to foods that are killing us.