Thanksgiving feast loaded with salt: Reason for concern?

Cutting up the Thanksgiving turkey. iStockphoto

Cutting up the Thanksgiving turkey.
iStockphoto

(CBS/AP) When you sit down for your Thanksgiving feast, will your blood pressure go up? Unless your meal is cooked entirely from scratch, there's a good chance it contains lots of pressure-raising sodium

PICTURES: Yuck! 25 surprisingly salty processed foods

"For Thanksgiving or any meal, the more you can cook from scratch and have some control over the sodium that's going in, the better," says Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian from the American Dietetic Association.

Look no further than traditional fixings to see how easily you can surpass 2,000 milligrams of sodium in one sitting.

Raw turkey may be naturally low in sodium, but poultry is often plumped up with salt water injections before it even reaches the store - tacking on another 320 mg of sodium per serving. Double that number if you buy a fully cooked bird.

Stuffing and green bean casserole? Try 600 mg of sodium per serving, and another 350 from the casserole if the beans are canned. Add some gravy for 270 mg, a dinner roll for 130 mg.

Even pumpkin pie contains about 350 mg of sodium per serving.

In a meeting held this month, the FDA deliberated on how to cut enough salt in processed foods for average shoppers to have a good shot at meeting dietary guidelines. The idea: If sodium levels gradually drop in the overall food supply, it will ease the nation's high blood pressure epidemic and people's taste buds will adjust.

"Reducing sodium is important for nearly everyone," the CDC's Dr. Robin Ikeda, told the meeting.

Food makers want a voluntary approach, and some are reworking their recipes as part of a New York City campaign to cut salt consumption by at least 20 percent over five years.

It will take different strategies and some may need to be sneaky, Kraft Foods' Richard Black told the FDA meeting. "Low-sodium" Ritz crackers were a bust until the box was changed to say "Hint of Salt" - then those exact same crackers started selling, he said.

In the U.S., the average person consumes 3,400 mg of sodium a day. The nation's new dietary guidelines say no one should eat more than 2,300 mg - about a teaspoon of salt. Half the population -which includes anyone in their 50s and older, African-Americans, or anyone suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease - should eat only 1,500 mg.

That's because one in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.

Some researchers, however, have recently questioned salt's link to heart disease, setting off a debate. A recent study found that cutting salt intake actually raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels - major risk factors for heart disease, CBS News reported.

"I can't really see, if you look at the total evidence, that there is any reason to believe there is a net benefit of decreasing sodium intake in the general population," study author Dr. Niels Graudal, a senior consultant at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark, said at the time.

The Virginia-based trade group, the Salt Institute, went one step further, telling CBS News in an email, "Low-sodium diets trigger a negative chain reaction in the body that increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, heart attack and heart disease."

With all the back and forth it's hard to keep track: Will a salt-laced dinner do you in this Thanksgiving?

Dr. Jonathan Whiteson, director of the Cardiac and Pulmonary Wellness and Rehabilitation Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, told CBS News that one Thanksgiving meal could be "life-threatening" for people who already have high blood pressure or existing heart problems.

He said a holiday spread could push at-risk people into heart failure within 12 to 36 hours.

"It's a very real problem," Whiteson told CBS News.

How? Too much salt makes a person bloated, and the extra water retention leads to heart failure because the heart can't pump enough fluid fast enough, he said. Drinking more water or alcohol to "flush out" the salt only makes this worse. But the meal doesn't have to be a Thanksgiving feast to cause this effect.

"We see people who come into the hospital because they ordered Chinese takeout, or a meal from their favorite restaurant," or even grocery store foods like canned soups, Whiteson said.

Should healthy folks cut back on salt this Thanksgiving?

"Thanksgiving is so not a time to be going on a diet," Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, tells CBS News. "My strategy is to taste everything, enjoy everything I taste, enjoy my beloved relatives, and try not to put on more than a pound or so."

If you do chose to cut back, Thayer, the dietitian, has some tips for Thanksgiving:

  • All bread contains sodium, but homemade cornbread for stuffing could cut a few hundred milligrams
  • Use low-sodium broth for the gravy, and choose low-sodium soups
  • Try onion, garlic and other herbs in place of salt. Lemon and citrus can stand in for salt in some foods
  • Check your spice bottles. Combination seasonings can contain salt.
  • Fresh or frozen vegetables have little if any sodium, unless you choose the frozen kind with sauce
  • People tend to heavily salt mashed potatoes while sweet potatoes contain very little sodium

Going suddenly low-salt can startle your palate, Thayer says, "but it adjusts much quicker than I think most people realize."

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