THE BLOG

Sodium: The Silent Killer of African Americans

03/12/2014 07:56 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

My grandmother was Southern, and she grew up on Crisco. It is a cooking oil, but it looks like white-colored Vaseline. There it sat in two cans on her stove. One was used for chicken grease, the other for fish grease. Sometimes it was reused more than once. If you happened to burn yourself while cooking, you just applied Crisco to the burn. She knew when you didn't use Crisco in your food. She would say, "This taste like white folks cooked it." I knew exactly what she meant. The food was bland. No flavor. No "je ne sais quoi." No soul. No oomph. But that oomph is what's killing our people now. The silent killer of African Americans is sodium.

Salt is in everything we eat. I'm not just talking about the obvious suspects like potato chips. I'm talking about the stuff you add after you prepare your food. The condiments.

There are 154 milligrams (mg.) of sodium in one tablespoon of ketchup. There are 57 mg. of sodium in one tablespoon of mustard. There are 175 mg. of sodium in one tablespoon of barbeque sauce. There are 88 mg. of sodium in one tablespoon of mayonnaise. There are 213 mg. of sodium in one cup of Honey Nut Cheerios. On average, a vegetarian burger contains 398 mg. of sodium.

Here are some more scary facts. According to the FDA, you should only consume 2,300 mg. of sodium per day, or 1,500 mg. if you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure. Olive Garden's classic lasagna contains 2,830 mg. of sodium. Burger King's Whopper sandwich contains 910 mg. of sodium. A McDonald's Big Mac contains 970 mg. of sodium. Wendy's Homestyle Chicken Fillet sandwich contains 1,200 mg. of sodium. One Popeye's mild chicken wing contains 610 mg. of sodium. The amount increases significantly if you add ketchup, mayonnaise, pickles and fries. Now imagine consuming this on a regular basis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans develop high blood pressure more often and at a younger age than any other ethnicity. High blood pressure puts you at risk for blindness, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. Some 46 percent of black women have high blood pressure. (In the next most affected group, Mexican-Americans, 29 percent of women have the condition.) Are you scared yet? You should be! One in five adults has high blood pressure and doesn't know it. African Americans with high blood pressure have an 80-percent higher chance of dying from a stroke than the general population. Eighty percent! Why are African Americans at a greater risk than anyone else? No one knows the correct answer for this, but I would assume it is a combination of many things.

I think the most obvious reason is being overweight. According to the Office of Minority Health and the CDC, four out of five African-American women are obese or overweight.

Another reason is stress. According to the National Poverty Center, 27.4 percent of African Americans were living below the poverty level in 2010, and poverty rates were highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they were African American. Not knowing how you or your kids are going to eat, living in a unsafe neighborhood, the threat of "stop and frisk" and raising a family by yourself are all highly stressful.

Another factor is diet. There is such easy access to fast food in many black neighborhoods. If you only have a certain amount of money for the week, would you opt for a 99-cent burger or fresh vegetables at the supermarket?

Stop smoking. Smoking a cigarette raises the blood pressure by 5 to 10 mmHg for about 30 minutes. If this is combined with drinking a cup of coffee, the effects are bigger and last longer. Plus your clothes stink. Your breath stinks. Your teeth get yellow.

Lose weight. There are way too many of us who are overweight. Put the Xbox controls down and go for a walk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. Many who have lost weight have had their blood pressure medication reduced or eliminated by their physician.

Reduce the amount of alcoholic beverages you drink. One or two drinks have been shown to reduce blood pressure in studies, but excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages has the opposite effect. A glass of wine or a shot is fine. If you find yourself looking down an empty bottle of Hennessy or having downed a six pack, that's not good.

And the most obvious: Reduce the amount of table salt you use. When you go food shopping, check the label on your food. Get your annual medical checkups. Try to either reduce the amount of stress in your life or learn better coping techniques to control your blood pressure. Fry food less. Bake more. Find healthier ways to cook your favorite dish. Eat more vegetables. Eat fewer packaged and processed foods. Drink more water.

Your health is in your hands. You are the only person responsible for you.

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