American children’s risk for having high blood pressure has ballooned by 27 percent over 13 years, according to new research by a group of scientists at Harvard Medical School. The researchers contend that the rise is largely attributable to excess salt consumption and obesity — but policy shortcomings often contribute to Americans’ unhealthy lifestyles in the first place.
The study finds that over 80 percent of children consume more than the daily recommended 2,300 milligrams of sodium on a regular basis — which is also well over the recommended maximum intake of 1,500 milligrams for those with high blood pressure. Children who consumed the highest amount of salt were at 36 percent higher risk of having high blood pressure than children who ate less of it, according to the research.
But the amount of salt that kids consume is partly due to the food industry’s reckless use of sodium in its products. The vast majority — approximately 75 percent — of salt consumed by Americans comes from restaurant meals and processed, pre-packaged foods like white bread, ham, spaghetti with sauce, and ketchup. As Nature World News points out, the same level of excess sodium is found in at least 75 percent of food marketed at toddlers, too.
By some estimates, the food industry’s predilection for salt contributes to 100,000 American deaths every year from hypertension that leads to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular conditions — conditions that are much more likely to form in people who have high blood pressure at an early age.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to act in any meaningful way to curb salt level in food despite the demonstrable health risks of excess sodium and the overwhelming recommendation of food researchers and public health advocates, including the Institute of Medicine. That’s largely a consequence of the disproportionate power of the corporate food lobby, which significantly jams up even the most uncontroversial reforms. Labeling requirements for deadly trans fats took over six years to work their way through the regulatory bureaucracy, stymied by industry complaints and threats of lawsuits.
Socioeconomic disparities also contribute to consuming too much salt and its subsequent medical consequences. The new study found that black children had 28 percent higher blood pressures than non-Hispanic white children. That’s not just a coincidence. Minorities, and specifically low-income minorities, tend to have worse diets because their communities lack access to supermarkets that sell healthy food products. Conservatives often criticize food stamp beneficiaries for eating soda and other junk food — but they rarely offer a solution for the resource disparity that forces recipients to rely on that kind of food, or the odd and demanding hours that poor people must work that may prevent them from preparing home-cooked meals.
Worse still, poor black and Latino Americans don’t have access to the sort of preventative and primary health care services that may alert them to and help manage an underlying condition like high blood pressure. Republican-led states that forgo Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will only exacerbate those disparities by denying their neediest residents health insurance.
Lifestyle changes are certainly an important aspect of reversing Americans’ decline in health. But regulating the substances that feed those declines, and providing health care to groups disproportionately impacted by poverty and a lack of both healthy food and medical resources, are also parts of the equation.