Sugar, Salt, and Blood Pressure

A paper in the journal Open Heart questions whether salt is the only danger for people at risk of high blood pressure.

People with these risks are told to cut back on salt. But James J DiNicolantonio of the Department of Preventive Cardiology, Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sean C Lucan of the Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, New York, have suggested that salt is not the only concern. They point out that the source of much of the salt in our diets is processed food, and that those processed foods tend to contain sugar as well. Should you worry?

You can find anti-sugar blasts everywhere, from scientific journals to popular nonfiction to cookbooks:

  • Tom Rath in Eat Move Sleep:

Sugar is the next nicotine. Sugar is a toxin. It fuels diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. At the current doses we consumer, over 150 pounds per person every year, sugar and its derivatives kill more people than cocaine, heroin, or any other controlled substances.

  • Michael Moss in Salt Sugar Fat

Sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them.

  • Tosca Reno in Tosca’s Guide to Eating Right:

The more sugar an addict has, the more sugar he/she needs, until it spirals out of control into obesity, diabetes, chronic headaches, migraines, insomnia, ADD and ADHD, anxiety, nervousness, and hosts of other health problems.

  • Princeton pyschologist Bart Hoebel in Evidence of Sugar Addiction:

[S]ugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be “addictive” for some individuals when consumed in a “binge-like” manner.

Note that these blistering claims about sugar talk about sugar in large quantities. The World Health Organization recommends that added sugars be limited to 30 grams a day for women and 45 for men. The current U.S. average? Just over 150 grams.

It’s true that Americans eat a lot of sugar, as well as a lot of high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener that the Open Heart study particularly called out as a danger for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Look at the sugar totals in a few common grocery store foods (figures from WebMD):

  • 23 grams of sugar in applesauce
  • 30 grams of sugar in a blueberry muffin
  • 12 grams of sugar in spaghetti sauce
  • 15 grams of sugar in BBQ sauce
  • 32 grams of sugar in vitamin water
  • 31 grams of sugar in yogurt

None of these items is considered a dessert. A can of soda typically has about 35 grams of sugar and a sweet coffee drink can have 50. So a person enjoying applesauce, a muffin, and a special latte for breakfast followed by a mid-morning soda and a fast food lunch will rack up more than 150 grams of sugar before dinner.

Switching to fresh foods cooked at home from fresh ingredients is probably the best way to cut down on sugar. Choosing satisfying foods rather than appetite-stimulating soda when we want a sweet treat is probably smart. If your blood pressure is a concern, reducing sugar and salt may be helpful.

Talk with your healthcare provider if you’re worried about your blood pressure.

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