NYC’s Dilemma: Trading One Food Nanny For Another

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New York City has led the country in nanny state policies that limit a consumer’s choices. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city banned trans fats at restaurants, posted calorie counts on menus, and tried to limit soda consumption. My least favorite Bloomberg role was that of “neonatal specialist” when he launched an initiative to “encourage” women to breastfeed their newborn babies. Weary mothers were subjected to a round of questioning, while nurses kept baby formula locked in cabinets.

Given this history, some New York City residents were not surprised to see Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Board of Health propose that all chain restaurants add a salt-shaker-like symbol on menus next to entrees that contain more than the recommended daily sodium limit. The proposed symbol would appear next to menu items with more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, or about one teaspoon, which is the daily recommended amount. City health officials say they want salt shaker symbols placed next to extremely salty items. New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett believes the symbol would make relatively unhealthy choices more obvious and estimates the symbol would be required for about 10 percent of menu items.

The recommended amount of daily salt intake has been debated and discussed for almost a decade. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that too much sodium raises blood pressure and puts an individual at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other ailments. This is true.

Yet, several years ago, the Institute of Medicine released a study which revealed that a further reduction in salt consumption may increase health risks in certain groups. Other research has argued that Americans already eat within the reasonable and safe range of sodium consumption. While I agree that individuals with certain risks should definitely limit their sodium intake, a one-size-fits-all approach may not work for the entire population.

Even the American Heart Association recognizes that their recommendation for less than 1500 mg of sodium per day is not advisable for everyone. They acknowledge that 1500 mg does not apply to individuals who lose large amounts of sodium in sweat, especially athletes and workers exposed to extreme heat (firefighters, for example), or others advised by their physicians.

As a mother of two track runners, we spend our weekends at eight-hour meets in the blazing hot sun. Replenishing electrolytes is essential for my kids and we often bring to the track a homemade version of Gatorade which includes coconut water and yes, good old fashioned salt — a key mineral in electrolytes.

I always appreciate the efforts to encourage people to make wise decisions about what they eat. An across-the-board sodium reduction effort, however, runs the potential risk of being harmful to some and arguably, unnecessary for many others. Ultimately, a person’s power to decide what he or she chooses to eat remains with himself or herself.