Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against Denny’s restaurant chain for serving salty food. Jason Ciszewski, a Denny’s regular, is claiming that his three favorite meals there, “Moons Over My Hammy,” the “SuperBird Sandwich” and the “Meat Lover’s Scramble” contain so much sodium that it caused him to develop high blood pressure. In Ciszewski’s opinion, it was Denny’s responsibility to warn him that dishes composed primarily of ham, bacon, sausage and cheese contained a lot of salt, and since they didn’t, it should cost them $5 million.
While there may be a measure of personal responsibility that diners like Ciszewski need to take for their own eating choices, the issue of sodium content in Americans’ foods is valid, and one that is being raised by many health experts. Health organizations are taking a fast-growing interest in the amount of salt that is contained in restaurant food, fast food, as well as the processed, canned and prepared foods that fill U.S. grocery stores.
According to the American Heart Association, at least 70% of the sodium in the average American diet is coming from the food itself, not from a salt shaker. When American meals are prepared in food factories instead of family kitchens, salt is used in liberal and sometimes dangerous proportions. In a report released in March, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that more than 130 million Americans are consuming too much salt and putting themselves at risk for serious illnesses.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the medical condition that is most often associated with excessive salt intake, but it is not the only malady related to high sodium intake. Last week the results of a study with 20,000 people age 45 and older published in the “Neurology” journal concluded that salt-induced high blood pressure can also cause memory loss and impaired brain functions. And there are many more negative effects that sodium can have on your body, according Tammy Lakatos Shames and Lyssie Lakatos, sisters who are both registered dieticians in New York.
The Nutrition Twins, as the Lakatos sisters are called, have been dietetic counselors for more than a decade. But it’s just in the past few years that they’ve found the need to focus extra attention on the sodium intake of their clients. The reason? “Manufacturers sneak salt into everything, especially the ‘healthy’ foods that we dutifully eat while trying to be ‘good,’” they explain.
The Lakatos sisters are now sending clients on a serious scavenger hunt to find all the hidden salt in the foods they’re consuming. Salt is hidden in “everything from low-fat salad dressings and packaged diet entrees to lean meats and soups, and wheat breads and cereals,” they say, and it is cumulatively dangerous.
Too much sodium can cause what the Nutrition Twins call “salt toxicity,” which is exactly what it implies – a level of salt that is so high that it becomes toxic to vital organs and body functions. Beyond hypertension, the Lakatos sisters outline many of the effects that salt toxicity can have on the body:
- Overworks and damages kidneys trying to expel excess salt
- Increases the risk for kidney stones
- Increases the risk for stomach cancer
- Lowers metabolism
- Increases the risk for diabetes
- Increases the risk for osteoporosis
- Damages the heart and contributes to cardiovascular disease
- Hardens arteries, decreasing the flow of oxygen in the blood
- Increases the risk for strokes
As bad as those conditions are, the biggest impact that salt is having on the American population today is that it is making them big. Salt toxicity produces more fat cells in the body, makes the fat cells more dense, increases food cravings, and decreases the ability to burn fat and repair muscle. More than 70 million Americans are obese, and salt toxicity is a major contributor to that condition.
This connection between obesity and salt intake is the reason why the Nutrition Twins thought it was vitally important to write an entire book focused on salt in the diet. It’s also the reason why their book is called, “The Secret to Skinny.”
“Once inside your body, salt wreaks havoc on your waistline,” Tammy and Lyssie wrote in the book. It’s seemingly innocent, and often invisible, so most people don’t pay it any attention” they say. One example in the book of a “seemingly innocent” meal is the “Guiltless Chicken Sandwich” on the menu at Chili’s restaurant. Although it only has 490 calories and 8 grams of fat, it also has a whopping 2,720 milligrams of salt, which is more than is recommended for an entire day.
The Nutrition Twins urge people to take a more holistic view of their food for both diet and health reasons. Focusing specifically on just fat grams or calories or carbs to the exclusion of all other attributes, like salt content, is leading people to choose foods that have detrimental effects to both their weight and their health. “Our experience proves that if you learn to drop the salt, you will drop a size – or more – and add years to your life,” they say.
A holistic view is something that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) supports as well when it comes to America’s restaurants. It has had Denny’s in its crosshairs for a while, and even helped another diner file a sodium-related lawsuit against the chain in July.
The CSPI also called Domino’s new BreadBowl Pasta dishes “food porn” because the carb, fat, and salt content in them are so obscene. Earlier this year the association presented testimony to the Senate Finance Committee which cited Red Lobster, Chili’s, and Olive Garden as examples of restaurants serving food that has four days worth of sodium in a single meal. The CSPI is working on the sodium issue in legal and government venues since consumers don’t seem aware, and restaurant chains don’t seem to care.
The Nutrition Twins think the salt crisis in America can be easily solved by individuals, one bite at a time. “Look closely at the nutrition information and you’ll see why you should rethink your order the next time you head out for food on the run,” Tammy and Lyssie say. And if nutritional information isn’t easily accessible, the CSPI will be working hard to change that, on behalf of all American diners.