High blood pressure is one of the biggest health problems in the US today. The CDC estimates that 75 million American adults, about one-third of the adult population, have high blood pressure. More worryingly, “high blood pressure was a major cause or cause of death for more than 410,000 Americans in 2014,” the last year for which the CDC reports data.
One of the main causes of high blood pressure (even high blood pressure) is too much salt in the diet. As Americans have eaten more and more, they are less aware of how much salt gets into their food. Salt is tasty but invisible: you can not know exactly how much salt is in your food if you have not prepared it yourself.
Prevalence of high blood pressure in the entire US photo credit: Center of Disease Control (CDC) in the US
Everyone knows that fast food can be salty, especially those (like French fries) that are doused with salt. What they do not know, however, is that over the past 30 years, the amount of salt in fast food has increased dramatically, according to a study recently published by Megan McCrory and colleagues from Boston University.
The new study looked at how portion sizes, calories, sodium (salt), calcium and iron changed between 1986 and 2016 in the major fast food chains. They analyzed the data of these 10 restaurants:
Portions and calories have been increasing in the last 30 years, but I want to focus on the salt.
In 1986, the sodium content in starters was on average 36% of the recommended daily allowance, which is quite high for a single entree (eg a burger). As bad as that was, by 2016 it was 47%. So a single fast-food main course has almost half of a full day salt stock. The number of pages increased from 14% to 26%, which means that if you have an appetizer and a side (fries!), You will receive 75% of your daily salinity. On average, they add 50% more salt today than in 1986.
And that’s just the average: If you order larger sizes or one of the more salty options (though you may not know which one) or more than one side dish, you can easily exceed 100% of your recommended salt intake for the day. (By the way, for the vast majority of people, it’s okay to have less than the “permission” of salt.)
I remember fast food burgers and french fries in the 1980s, and they were delicious. I have not noticed that they taste better today, and it is not clear why the chains increased the amount of salt so much. Presumably, they’ve done consumer testing and found that people like more salt, but it just might be that salt, a preservative, offers the opportunity to store food longer and save money.
Now most people believe that fast food is not healthy. It is popular because it tastes good and is comfortable. However, the fact that the salt has increased should be worrying for the large numbers of people who suffer from high blood pressure (or hypertension).
For those who want to do a little homework, you can now easily find detailed nutrition information for all major chains online. It only took a few seconds to find downloadable lists for McDonald’s, KFC’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Burger King and others, so you can compare all the items before your next visit.
For example, a McDonalds quarter masher with cheese has 1110 mg of sodium or 46% of your daily intake. Your Bacon Smokehouse Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich has far more, 1940 mg (81%), while the Filet-O-Fish contains only 560 mg of sodium (23%). Side dishes can be surprisingly bad (or good). KFC’s corncob is a jewel without any sodium content, but the BBQ-Baked Beans weigh 820 mg of sodium.
The bottom line is that if you want to eat less salt, it’s best to make your own food. It’s more trouble, but it’s well worth the effort.