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Salt, Part 1

Heath dangers in Canadian children start with high levels of salt Add to ...

Ms. Yarema saw her family doctor several times after she adopted her new diet. Each time, her doctor noticed an improvement in her blood pressure and lowered the dosage of her medication.

At a checkup in December, the doctor told Ms. Yarema that her blood pressure was completely normal and that she no longer needed medication - something she had been told could never happen.!

AGAINST THE GRAIN

Catherine Yarema healed herself by changing her diet - now the nation of Britain is trying to do the same.

Five years ago, it became one of the few countries to act decisively on sodium by launching what is widely considered the world's most aggressive reduction campaign. Many experts say it provides an excellent model for Canada.

Ottawa, however, appears to be in no hurry. The federal government created a working group to address the issue two years ago. Including representatives from federal agencies, the medical community, health-advocacy organizations and the food and restaurant industries, the group has met several times but has yet to develop a strategy.

"I think we would like to have seen greater progress," says Kevin Willis, director of partnerships with the Canadian Stroke Network and member of the task force. Like hypertension researcher Dr. Campbell, Dr. Willis wants to develop strong measures to compel food producers to reduce sodium levels over time.

Food manufacturers and restaurants say they agree on targeting sodium but resist the idea of strict government regulation.

"I think there's lots of evidence out there that a voluntary approach can work," says Ron Reaman, vice-president of federal government affairs at the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, pointing to the measures taken in recent years to reduce trans fats. "I think that there's incredible commitment on the part of the food industry to actually address sodium levels."

With the consumer backlash over trans fats still fresh in the food industry's memory, some companies already have moved to create low- or reduced-sodium alternatives. Nielsen market research reports that dozens of such products have begun to appear in the Canadian marketplace.

But many health experts say the current pace of sodium reduction is so sluggish that it's putting lives at risk. They fear that leaving food companies and fast-food chains to their own devices won't be enough.

"We're taking in this substance, which is artificially added to our diet, at such high levels that it's really acting as a chronic poison," says Dr. Willis of the Canadian Stroke Network. "The only way in which we can really make an impact on sodium reduction in our diet is get manufacturers to reduce the amount."

Meanwhile in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, three years after his diagnosis, David Beeching is about to graduate from high school. He dreams of becoming a musician, though for a living he expects to make and repair guitars.

As for his plans to manage his hypertension? "I don't really think about it."

But if he doesn't start thinking about it, his mother worries that he could become a heart-disease statistic before he even turns 30. Despite her best efforts, Ms. Savoie can't always force him to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. She knows the sodium in the bread, lasagna and French fries that David loves to eat outside the house is damaging his health. But she feels helpless.

"When you want to change yourself, it's easy, but to try to change somebody's habit, it's not the same," she says. "It's really difficult."

When salt has you licked

Reducing sodium consumption is not as simple as asking everyone to cut back. Not only do people love the taste of salt, but a significant amount of research suggests that sodium chloride (its chemical name) actually can be addictive.

According to David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, salty foods rewire the brain, making people prone to overindulgence and strong cravings. His new book, The End of Overeating, argues that consuming foods high in salt (as well as fat and sugar) change the way a person sees food.

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