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The impact of sugar and salt on heart health

Nutrition and diet are lifestyle factors that can play a major part in whether you are at risk of heart and circulatory disease, now or in the future.

Both sugar and salt can negatively impact your heart health. A high sugar diet is often high in calories which can lead to weight gain and too much salt is linked to high blood pressure - so cutting back is a great first step to reducing your risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Want to know more? In this week's educational blog we're talking all things sugar and salt. Read more to find out how too much sugar and salt can impact your heart health and some top tips from the dietitians at the BHF for some simple swaps to reduce your intake.


Why is too much salt bad for you?

Eating too much salt can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, which increases your risk of heart and circulatory diseases.

Salt contains sodium and is where most of the sodium in our diets come from.  Your kidneys play an important part in controlling blood pressure, which includes balancing your sodium and water. When the balance of water and sodium is disrupted in your body, it can contribute to increased blood pressure.

Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt per day (2.4g sodium) which is only about one teaspoon! While this sounds a lot, many of us likely eat more than this without even realising. That's because processed and pre-packaged foods are the main source of salt in our diet, so in addition to any salt you add after or during cooking, your meals and snacks may already be giving you more than enough

Why is high blood pressure a problem?

Up to 5 million people in the UK have high blood pressure and don't know it. That's because most people don't have symptoms. Around 50% of heart attacks and strokes are associated with high blood pressure.

High blood pressure means your heart must work harder to pump blood around your body. Over time, this makes your blood vessels lose their stretchiness and they become stiff and narrow. This narrowing makes it easier for fatty material to clog them up. If the blood vessels that carry blood to your heart or brain get damaged and clogged, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

That's why cutting back on your salt intake is so important for looking after your heart health!

How can I eat less salt?

It might seem tricky to limit your salt intake when it's already in lots of the foods we eat. More than three quarters of our recommended salt intake is already in our food, so it can be really helpful to check the salt content in the everyday foods you buy and try to choose lower-salt options where possible.

You can do this by looking at the nutrition panel on the front or back of packs, which often shows salt content as colour-coded: green (low), amber (medium) and red (high). Try to opt for green or amber foods, and only eat high-salt foods in small amounts.

If the nutrition label only shows sodium, you can work out the amount of salt in the product by multiplying the total sodium by 2.5. For example, 1g of sodium per 100g is 2.5g of salt per 100g.

There are also some really simple swaps that can help to cut back on your salt intake. Why not try our handy tips next time you're planning a meal:

  • If you're going out for the day, try to prepare a homemade meal to take with you so you can either ditch the salt or add only a small amount if needed.
  • Swap salt for other seasonings such as pepper, herbs, spices, garlic and lemon and lime. That way you won't be missing out on flavour while cutting back on salt
  • Swap your processed and cured meats which are often high in salt for grilled or baked unprocessed meat
  • Ditch crisps and salty snacks for unsalted nuts or vegetables

Opt for reduced salt alternatives, such as reduced salt ketchup, baked beans, soy sauce and stock cubes


Why should most of us be eating less sugar?

A little bit of sugar in your diet won't hurt you, but many of us are eating much more than we should. Our maximum recommended daily intake of free sugars a day should be no more than 30 grams. That's seven sugar cubes.

Eating too much sugar can lead you to put on weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of having a heart attack, stroke and developing Type 2 diabetes.

Sugar can also wreak havoc on your blood sugar, making you feel hungrier over the day, whilst affecting your hormones and mood. It can also have inflammatory affects, giving you sore joints and worsening illness and infections.

How can I eat less sugary foods?

It's ok to have an occasional treat. We don't advise completely cutting out sugar from your diet - that's not necessary and would be virtually impossible. For most of us it's the free sugars that we need to cut down on, like sugary cereals, cakes, pastries, sweets, sugary drinks etc.

Free sugar is what we call any sugar added to a food or drink. Or the sugar that is already in honey, syrup, and fruit juice. These are free because they're not inside the cells of the food we eat.

The sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk don't seem to have a negative effect on our health, and they come with extra nutrients, such as fibre.

But when fruit is turned into fruit juice, the sugars come out of their cells and become free sugars. The fibre is lost and it's easier to consume extra sugar without realising. You wouldn't eat four oranges in a row, but you might drink their juice in one glass of orange juice without feeling full.

Some handy tips from the BHF dietitians include:

  • Swapping flavoured yogurt for plain yogurt with added fruit: Many flavoured yoghurts will be packed with added sugars for flavour, so it's much healthier to opt for plain yoghurt and add the whole fruit yourself.
  • Instead of juices go for whole fruits: Whole fruits have a higher fibre content than juices.
  • Choose low sugar drinks or water: It's surprising just how much sugar is in our favourite drinks, so opting for low sugar options help to cut back. For example, a white americano will give you your caffeine kick but have much less sugar than a caramel latte.
  • Look out for food labels: As with salt, checking the nutrition label on foods is really important. Try to avoid foods with red colours for sugar and instead go for greens and ambers when you can. You can also read the back of packs to see the 'carbohydrates of which sugars' number. It will tell you how many grams of sugar are in a portion as well as per 100g.
  • Try to avoid pre-packaged sauces and marinades: These items can be packed with added sugar and salt so instead, try to make your own from scratch where possible.
  • When craving chocolate or sweets, reach for high in fibre and protein snacks: This combination will be nutritious and filling. For example, a pot of plain yoghurt with some fruit, oatcakes with houmous, or a nut and dried fruit mix.
  • Ditch the sugary breakfast cereals: Instead, try to opt for porridges with fruit and nuts.
  • Cut back on all sugars, even if they seem healthy: Don't be fooled into thinking that honeys or raw and dark sugars are better for you. They do the same to your body as regular sugar, so should also be limited.

How to watch out for hidden salt and sugar

Salt and sugar are often used in takeaways, pre-packaged foods like microwave meals and sauces to beef up their taste. So, the more you can cook from scratch at home the better. Aiming to cook at least 4 days a week means you can experiment with a range of flavours and get creative.

When at the supermarket, always read labels for hidden ingredients as sugar may be referred to as syrup, molasses, or fructose, so it may not always look like it's there. Foods with sodium or soy sauce on the label may also be high in salt.

Overall, a healthy lifestyle means balance. So, it's important not to stress about small details when it comes to food. But if you're reaching for salty snacks and sugary drinks every day, it's worth making some tweaks to your diet which will help to keep your heart healthy in the future.

Want some inspiration for healthy recipes?

As part of the healthy hearts programme you have access to our weekly heart-healthy recipes, all approved by the BHF and packed full of goodness (and flavour) but mindful of sugar and salt.

Want to learn more about nutrition and heart health? Visit the British Heart Foundation's award-winning Heart Matters magazine online nutrition hub.