Jan. 30, 2012 at 12:12 PM ET
Even if you’ve never had a McNugget, you could be guilty of eating a high sodium diet.
Imagine eating nothing but salt-filled McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. For 15 years. That’s exactly what Stacey Irvine, a 17-year-old factory worker from England did—and it just may kill her. But before you write this story off as just plain crazy, do you know how much salt you’re taking in? And what it’s doing to your health?
As reported by the Daily Mail, when Stacey Irvine’s mother first took her to a McDonald’s restaurant 15 years ago and bought her some Chicken McNuggets, it was love at first bite. Since then, the British teen has eaten almost nothing but Chicken McNuggets. A diet like this not only lacks vital nutrients, it also serves up a dangerous amount of salt. A 10-piece order of Chicken McNuggets packs in 900 milligrams (mg) of sodium, more than half the sodium you should have in a single day.
Irvine recently collapsed at work, and was rushed to the hospital struggling to breathe. She’s home now, but the amount of salt she’s been eating means she’ll need to clean up her diet faster than a McDonald’s employee turns around an order at the drive thru window. All that salt can lead to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, particularly as she ages.
“The food industry creates a preference for very salty foods with the high salt content of their products, then creates products to satisfy that preference, and it becomes a feedback loop,” says David Katz, MD, founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.
While most people aren’t surprised to hear that a high-sodium diet raises blood pressure, most Americans would be downright shocked if they knew how much salt they really eat. The US government recommends that adults should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day, about two-thirds of a teaspoon. The average American really takes in 3,436 mg a day—more than double the recommendation.
Before you reassure yourself that you’re fine—after all, you banned the salt shaker from your table long ago—it turns out the biggest culprits are processed and packaged foods. "The vast majority of salt, 80% or more, is already in processed and pre-prepared foods," says Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition at New York University.
Here’s just how fast the salt can add up on a typical day:
Breakfast: 1 whole grain bagel (490 mg) with 2 Tbsp fat-free cream cheese (211 mg) and 6 oz yogurt (95 mg)
Snack: 2 Tbsp peanut butter (147 mg) on 6 wheat crackers (194 mg)
Lunch: Sandwich with 2 slices low-salt turkey (432 mg), 1 slice American cheese (266 mg), and 2 tsp mustard (114 mg) in a flour tortilla (490 mg) with 1 dill pickle spear (306 mg) and 1c vegetable soup (960 mg)
Snack: 1 wheat pita (340 mg) with 2 Tbsp hummus (114 mg)
Dinner: ½ c pasta (4 mg) with ½ c jarred tomato sauce (480 mg) and 2 meatballs (232 mg), 1 slice garlic bread (400 mg), and salad with reduced fat ranch dressing (336 mg)
Dessert: Homemade apple crisp (495 mg) with ½ c vanilla ice cream (53 mg) and 2 Tbsp caramel sauce (60 mg)
The grand total: 6,219 mg, more than quadruple the daily recommended amount.
So even if you’ve never touched a McNugget, you can still quickly eat more sodium than you should. And all that salt doesn’t only hurt your heart and your waistline. An emerging body of research has also linked excessive sodium intake to cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia, sleep apnea, and kidney disease.
Scary stuff. But what’s even scarier is that it’s not easy to kick the salt habit: Chances are, you’re addicted to the stuff. Your body only needs about 500 mg of sodium a day to maintain the right balance of fluids, transmit nerve impulses, and move your muscles. When you eat far more than that—as most of us clearly do—your brain chemistry is altered. Research shows that salt actually triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes salty foods as addictive as nicotine and alcohol.
And just like with any addiction, eating salty foods makes your body crave more. In other words, the more Chicken McNuggets you have, the more you crave them. No matter what the cost.