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Salt vs. Sugar: Which is the Real Culprit?

I don’t think it’s any surprise that the number one killer in America is heart disease. Nor is it a surprise that high blood pressure, or hypertension, is the leading cause of that deadly heart disease. Hypertension is a condition, often chronic (long-term), in which the force of the blood against the artery walls is too high. This condition is one of the most common health issues in America, with more than 3 million new or worsening cases being diagnosed each year. More than half of all adults in our country have high blood pressure, although many of them are not aware of this dangerous fact. High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder and can lead to stroke or heart attack.

If you are like me, you have been told that one of the main culprits behind hypertension is the consumption of salt. I am not going to argue the findings that over-consumption of salt can cause health problems. Processed and canned foods found in the grocery store is often sky-high in sodium. If you add your own salt to these foods, you are most likely going far beyond the amount recommended by the Food and Drug Administration. Excess salt in the diet causes a decrease in kidney function, leading to extra fluid and strain on the fragile blood vessels leading to the kidneys.

Despite the problems over-consumption of salt can cause, reducing just sodium isn’t all that effective at dropping blood pressure. Most clinical trials show that cutting out 1,000 milligrams of sodium from a diet, which is a relatively large amount, results in only a small drop in blood pressure in most cases. Relatively few folks see meaningful blood pressure benefits from cutting salt. While this is not to suggest that doctors are mistaken when recommending a low-salt diet to heart patients, perhaps salt isn’t the only white crystal food source that should be considered.

Newer studies have found that sugar may have a big part in causing hypertension. Added sugar, like the kind that’s abundant in processed foods, isn’t a necessary nutrient like the sodium found in salt. Our bodies have no use for it. Studies have shown that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, one of the most popular sources of added sugar, increases blood pressure levels and is associated with an increased incidence of hypertension.

Sugar and hypertension are likely linked, in large part, by excess calorie consumption and weight gain. After all, being overweight is a risk factor for high blood pressure. In addition to this, excess sugar causes fluid retention, which also drives up blood volume and pressure, far more than excess salt.

So to answer the original question about which food additive is the culprit in causing hypertension, the answer is that they are both problems for those suffering from high blood pressure. But perhaps instead of obsessing over the salt shaker, it’s possible we’d improve our health even more by cutting back on sweetened foods, with sugary drinks at the top of that list.