Salt and blood pressure

For many years we've been advised to be careful with the amount of salt we add to food. Even if your blood pressure is normal, it is important to take steps to keep salt intake low.

How salt effects blood pressure

What is the difference between salt and sodium?

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride molecules.  It is the sodium that raises blood pressure and is associated with increased risk of heart disease. Thus, it is sodium that is listed on food labels. Multiply sodium by 2.5 to convert it to the equivalent amount of salt.

Is salt bad for you?

Our body does need small amounts of salt, however the salt naturally occurring in foods is sufficient to meet needs. Our body does not need the salt added in food manufacture, nor the salt added during cooking or at the table. Evidence shows that eating too much salt (sodium) can raise blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke which are the two largest causes of death in New Zealand. 

  • The World Health Organization estimates that high blood pressure is responsible for 17% of all deaths in high-income countries (such as New Zealand).
  • One in seven New Zealanders report taking medication for high blood pressure.
  • At a population level, reducing sodium intake reduces both blood pressure and risk of heart disease.
  • It has been estimated that reducing average sodium intake by 20% would save 930 lives in New Zealand each year (Goodall et al 2008) 
  • New Zealanders currently eat around 9 grams of salt a day; our body needs less than 1 gram to survive. To reduce risk of chronic disease it is recommended to eat no more than 4g salt a day (1600mg sodium).

Are speciality salts healthier?

No. The marketing of specialty salts, such as Himalayan rock salt or hand-harvested sea salt, can make them sound healthy.  They are not; and for the sake of your heart, it is recommended to cut back on all salt, regardless of type. Salt is also known as sodium chloride. It's the sodium in salt that can raise your blood pressure. It doesn't matter how expensive salt is, where it is from, or whether it comes in grains, crystals or flakes - it still contains sodium.   

How can I reduce my salt intake?

There are three main ways to cut down on salt (sodium):

  • Reduce the amount of salt you use at home, both in cooking and added at the table (your tastebuds do gradually adapt)
  • Read food labels so you can choose lower sodium options
  • Eat less of foods that are high in salt.

Are there other ways to reduce blood pressure?

  • Cutting down on the amount of salt (sodium) we eat helps reduce blood pressure. But our whole diet is also important, as is being a healthy body weight, and if drinking alcohol doing so in moderation. 
  • An example of a dietary pattern shown to improve blood pressure is the DASH diet. It emphasises a good intake of fruit and vegetables, low fat milk and milk products (dairy), choosing wholegrain foods, poultry, fish and nuts; and eating less fats, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks. The DASH diet has a higher intake of potassium, calcium, magnesium and fibre. Saturated fat intake is lower than the typical Western diet, and protein intake is higher.

Our 'Salt and the heart' evidence paper (PDF) recommends we continue to reduce dietary salt intakes, you can read more about our recommendations around salt and the heart in our Sodium Position Statement (PDF).

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