We know that everything tastes better with a dash of sugar and/or salt, but all of that rich flavor may be putting us all in an early grave. Consider that heart disease is the leading killer in the U.S., accounting for more than 600,000 deaths every year. Both salt and sugar have been shown to contribute to this unfortunate epidemic, each in its own way.
Salt vs Sugar – Is One Worse Than the Other?
Salt and added sugar should both be limited to ensure a heart-healthy lifestyle. There’s no concrete answer as to which is worse; it ultimately boils down to your own body chemistry.
- If you live with or are at a high risk of developing diabetes, you’ll want to be especially diligent about monitoring your sugar intake.
- If you live with or are at a high risk of developing hypertension, you’ll want to keep your sodium intake under control.
Salt and sugar can exacerbate many of the same risk factors, including high blood pressure (hypertension), metabolic syndrome, obesity, and arterial plaque. With that in mind, you shouldn’t think in terms of limiting just one mineral. Living a heart-healthy lifestyle requires an overall mindset and commitment.
The Link Between Sugar and Heart Disease
We know that too much sugar is bad for your teeth and your waistline. But what about your heart? Harvard Health notes that added sugar may be one of the greatest threats contributing to heart disease.
It’s important to emphasize that the problem lies primarily with “added sugars.” Sugars do occur naturally in fruits, veggies, and all carbohydrate-containing foods, but these usually aren’t a problem. The sugars found in fruits and veggies are accompanied by ample amounts of fiber and other nutrients. These nutrients help slow the digestion process, which allows much of the sugar to be converted into energy.
How Sugar Contributes to Heart Disease
Natural sugars are digested slowly and converted to energy. But when you’re consuming a lot of added sugar, your body experiences the opposite effect. Digestion occurs rapidly, your blood sugar spikes, and you find yourself feeling sluggish. What’s worse, too much added sugar over time can increase your risk of heart disease. There are several reasons why:
- Excess sugar puts added strain on your liver. Sugar that doesn’t get converted to energy ends up getting stored as fat.
- Excess sugar consumption contributes to obesity, one of the leading triggers of hypertension and heart disease.
- Excess sugar contributes to high blood pressure, another major risk factor.
- Excess sugar contributes to chronic inflammation. Research shows that consistent, high levels of inflammation are associated with heart disease.
- Excess sugar contributes to diabetes, which itself can contribute to and exacerbate heart disease.
According to a 2014 Harvard and CDC study, a person with a high-sugar diet has an almost 40% higher risk of death by cardiovascular disease than a person with a low-sugar diet.
How Much Sugar Is Safe?
So how much sugar is too much? In the aforementioned study, people with a caloric intake of 17% to 21% added sugar were in the high-risk category. People with an added sugar intake at or below 8% were in the lower-risk category.
So for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet, that means that no more than 160 calories per day should come from added sugar. That’s about the equivalent of one can of Coca-Cola.
The Link Between Salt and Heart Disease
The dangers of excess salt consumption are much more well-known. One four-year study out of Spain even found that high salt intake is associated with a two-fold risk of heart failure. That’s why heart-centric diets like the DASH diet stress very low sodium consumption.
However, whereas sugar’s risks appear to be fairly consistent from one person to the next, the risks associated with salt seem to vary from person to person. For instance, your risk of developing hypertension (a serious threat associated with high salt diets) can be influenced by factors like:
- Your age: Older people are at a higher risk than younger people. People over 60 are at the highest risk.
- Your gender: Research shows that men typically have a higher risk of hypertension than women.
- Your race: Hypertension risk appears to be highest among African-Americans (40.3%) and lowest among Asian-Americans (25%). Hispanic and Caucasian Americans are affected at a rate of 27.8%.
- Your weight: Overweight and especially obese individuals are at a greater risk of hypertension than individuals with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI).
A healthy person with low blood sugar and a normal BMI can usually handle a greater sodium intake than someone with high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, or a family history of heart disease.
Salt vs Sodium
Before we go any further, we should highlight the differences between salt and sodium. They’re not exactly the same thing.
- Salt: A combination of sodium and chloride. Most table salt contains roughly 40% sodium and 60% chloride, though it’s the sodium we have to keep an eye on.
- Sodium: Sodium is one of two key minerals found in salt, though it’s also found in other compounds like baking soda. When maintaining a heart-healthy diet, it’s important to closely track your sodium intake, as sodium is the active ingredient in salt that can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.
One teaspoon of table salt is equal to 2,300 milligrams of sodium.
How Salt Contributes to Heart Disease
There is a lot of debate regarding the extent to which salt and sodium should be blamed for cardiovascular disease. Some research (like the Spanish study mentioned above) suggests that excess salt consumption can be a death sentence. Other research suggests that only hypertensive patients should be concerned about the dangers of excess salt intake.
For its part, the American Heart Association warns that even healthy people can develop high blood pressure with excess salt consumption. The AHA advises that all Americans limit their salt intake to promote long-term heart health. These are some of the ways in which salt can contribute to heart disease:
- Excess sodium in the bloodstream pulls water into the blood vessels. This results in an increase in the volume of blood in the vessels. That’s how you get high blood pressure.
- As previously noted, high blood pressure is one of the leading triggers of heart disease and heart failure.
- Over time, high blood pressure can damage the blood vessel walls and accelerate the buildup of plaque. This places extra stress on the heart.
- High blood pressure can contribute to metabolic syndrome when combined with other cardiovascular risk factors.
- High-sodium foods are often rich in saturated fat and cholesterol. This can further contribute to obesity and other heart disease risk factors.
Although your level of risk might not be the same as someone else’s, it’s important to take steps to keep your blood pressure and general health under control. Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, or heart disease right now, your lifestyle will largely dictate your likelihood of developing these conditions as you get older.
How Much Salt Is Safe?
The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. However, according to the established Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should be consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, or one teaspoon of salt.
Individuals living with hypertension may need to be even more strict about the amount of sodium they consume. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for most Americans, especially those with high blood pressure.
How to Preserve Your Heart Health
If you want to prevent heart disease and avoid becoming a statistic, limiting both your salt and sugar intake is a good place to start. But it’s not enough. You’ll also need to:
- Keep your cholesterol under control. Cholesterol builds up in your arteries, causing them to narrow and placing extra stress on your heart. This can lead to a form of heart disease called atherosclerosis. Remember, though, that it’s not just the cholesterol in your food that raises your body’s cholesterol levels. High levels of saturated fat can also raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking remains one of the most common and preventable causes of heart disease. It raises your blood pressure, pollutes your heart and blood vessels, and can even contribute to dangerous arrhythmias.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a leading contributor to heart disease, but a healthy weight isn’t the same for every person. We spoke earlier about Body Mass Index. This is a general measure of body fat that takes your height and weight into consideration. Use this BMI chart to determine your ideal weight range.
- Exercise regularly. Daily physical activity doesn’t just help you keep your weight under control. It can also strengthen your heart muscle. Aerobic exercises and strength training can be especially beneficial long-term. Strive for at least 30 minutes per day of physical activity.
- Manage your stress. Chronicstress is an oft-overlooked threat to your cardiovascular health, but it can be just as dangerous as a poor diet if not properly managed. If stress is a major factor in your life, take steps to get it under control. You may benefit from meditation, yoga, or even just restructuring your day so that the most stressful activities are limited to a narrow timeframe.
If you already live with heart disease, there are additional steps you can take to preserve your health. For instance, make sure to visit your cardiologist on a regular basis. Focus on keeping your blood pressure within the normal range; this may require dietary restrictions and medication.
Also consider investing in an automated external defibrillator (AED). Though heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the U.S., the most common cause of death is actually cardiac arrest (a frequent outcome of the disease). An AED, when used quickly and properly, can often restart the heart and prevent death from occurring. There are several FDA-approved AEDs for sale to the public, most of which offer simple voice instructions that anybody can follow.
Cardiovascular disease is entirely preventable, but in order to keep your heart healthy and strong, you must be mindful of your overall lifestyle. The occasional potato chip or ice cream cone may not kill you, but salt and sugar can both wreak serious havoc over time. Enjoy them in moderation.