Step away from the cured meats and put down that cheese, especially if you're a bloke.
Australian men are eating twice as much salt as the maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation, a study has found.
Men on average are consuming about 10 grams of salt a day, and Australian women aren't far behind, taking in more than 7 grams a day, putting them at risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the paper published today in the Medical Journal of Australia.
"Salt's a problem because what salt does is, throughout your life, you eat more than you need and your blood pressure goes up over your life," said lead author Professor Bruce Neal from UNSW Sydney and the George Institute for Global Health.
"High blood pressure is the single biggest cause of premature death and disability in the world and most of that is from heart attack, strokes, kidney disease and heart failure."
But don't chuck out your Himalayan sea salt shaker quite yet, that's not where most of your salt is coming from.
The majority of this excess salt we're eating is hidden in processed foods, Professor Neal said.
"You shouldn't be putting salt on food because it's not good for you, but that's not the main issue here," he said.
"The issue is the 85 per cent of the average Australian's daily salt intake that comes from meats, cheeses, cereals, soups."
Hidden salt the culprit
And it's not just food we would think of as unhealthy. A single slice of bread can contain as much salt as a packet of chips, a study last year revealed.
This means we should be taking a look at how much sodium is contained in everything we eat that comes from a packet.
But Professor Neal said government and industry stepping up to change the ingredients going into those packaged foods would make a much bigger difference.
"Most of the actions trying to contain how much salt people eat have been about trying to educate people and tell them about the problem. And that's important, but the food environment means that's not desperately helpful. It has almost no impact at all."
Professor Neal gave the example of action taken in the UK around the turn of the millennium, when government put pressure on the industry to reduce salt content in food across the board.
The result? About 11,000 fewer stroke and heart attacks each year at the 10-year mark. An investment of 15 million pounds ($26 million) a year is estimated to have saved 1.5 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) in healthcare costs.
"It's just an absolute no-brainer," Professor Neal said.
Modelling suggests that if sodium intake in Australia and New Zealand were reduced by 10 per cent over 10 years, it would save about 11,000 years of life that would be otherwise lost due to ill health, disability or early death across the population because of cardiovascular disease, the authors noted.
Globally, the WHO estimates 2.5 million deaths could be prevented each year if salt consumption were reduced to the recommended level.
Knowing the problem the first step to fixing it
Australia, along with other WHO member states, has agreed to reduce the average population salt intake by 30 per cent by 2025.
But Professor Neal said it has not been clear how we would make this change, given we've never had an accurate idea until now as to how much we were actually eating.
Today's study aims to rectify that, bringing together 31 previous studies, including nearly 17,000 people over 26 years, and conducting a meta-analysis of their data.
Up until now, the only other nationally representative survey of Australian adults' salt consumption found people were eating about 6 grams a day.
That study relied on self-reporting — that is, study participants recalling what they had eaten and then reporting on it.
"You find people are pretty optimistic about how much they eat and what they eat, and you get systematic underestimations of up to 50 per cent or a third," Professor Neal said.
This study used data from more reliable methods, such as 24-hour urine tests, to get a more accurate measurement.
Professor Neal said ongoing monitoring of Australians' salt intake was needed to make sure the country met its reduction targets.
This article originally appeared on ABC Health.