Cut out this popular mineral and boost your heart health
Excessive sodium intake is a worldwide problem: the World Health Organization (WHO) lists reducing salt intake as one of its top 10 “best buys” for lowering the rates of chronic diseases.
But too little sodium creates hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition. If both too much and too little sodium are risky, clearly we have a situation where balance is important.
What is Sodium and Why You Should Care
Sodium comes in multiple forms in the diet: monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite, sodium saccharin, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and sodium benzoate. Table salt, or sodium chloride, is the form of sodium over which you have most direct control. While technically incorrect, people often use the terms sodium and salt interchangeably when talking about your nutritional health.
Here’s why. Sodium is an electrolyte that helps manage water supplies in and around your cells which, in effect, ensures that your cells and tissues are working properly. Sodium also helps regulate your blood pressure.
Too little sodium will cause your cells to become oversaturated with water, leading to swelling from head to toe. Low sodium, or sodium depletion, may make you feel a little disoriented because your brain tissues are swollen. If you’ve been working out and sweating a lot, you need to replenish your body with water and sodium or else your muscles will cramp.
How Too Much Salt Harms Your Health
You probably know high blood pressure is a consequence of ingesting too much sodium. And you know that high blood pressure increases your risk of stroke and heart disease. But did you know a high salt diet can cause liver disease, kidney disease, and potassium deficiency?
Further, recent research indicates that too much sodium worsens several autoimmune disorders: Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
How Much Sodium is Right for You?
The highly respected Institute of Medicine (IoM) recommends most Americans limit sodium intake to between 1,500 mg and 2,300 mg of sodium daily. If you are in any of the following groups, though, you should stay as close to the 1,500 mg mark as possible to maintain good health. These groups include:
- Individuals age 51 or older
- Those of African American descent
- People with high blood pressure
- Individuals with diabetes or chronic kidney disease
Saltiest Foods in your Homes
The saltiest foods in your home likely don’t taste very salty. That trickery is a big reason we’ve developed such a high-salt problem to begin with.
Breads – Breads and rolls are one of those silently salty foods. The label may not appear to show too much salt but one slice of bread can contain as much as 200 mg of sodium (about 9% of recommended daily intake).
Deli Meats – Cured meat is loaded with salt. A single slice of salami is 214 mg. And an ounce of pepperoni is 493 mg. All deli meats are loaded with salt.
- Cheese – Parmesan and cottage cheese are the saltiest cheeses. But prepackaged cheese slices or sticks (i.e. string cheese) are more processed than cheese you get at the deli counter, which means they contain a lot of unnecessary salt.
(Side note: See what I did with this list so far? If you eat a bread-meat-cheese sandwich, you could easily consume more than 50-75% of recommended intake.)
Sauces and dressings – A serving of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing contains 260 mg of sodium. That seems small but that amounts to 11% of recommended daily intake, or 17% of recommended intake if you are at risk for high sodium levels. Now consider that a serving size is just two tablespoons. I would bet that most people are not stopping at two tablespoons when dressing their salads.
Soy sauce – Just one tablespoon of soy sauce contains 914 mg of sodium. One tablespoon! It’s basically concentrated liquid salt.
Canned and boxed foods – Salt is used to preserve and flavor canned and boxed foods. Just reading the labels of canned soups and boxed macaroni and cheese should be enough to scare you. You’ll see the word “sodium” multiple times in the ingredient lists.
Frozen entrees – I’d estimate that the majority of frozen entrees at your local grocery store exceed the recommended sodium intake in one serving.
“Reduced salt” or “No salt added” foods – Most of the time, foods with these phrases are high in salt to begin with. Reducing salt by 25% is not a bad thing, but read the label for the truth as to how much is actually in there.
- Snacks – Chips and pretzels at least are honest in the sense that they actually taste salty. But people tend to keep snacking on them well past the suggested serving size.
If you bake, please be aware that baking soda contains substantial amounts of sodium, as much as 150 mg in just 1/8th of a teaspoon! There are salt-free alternatives that work just as well, though. Try looking for “sodium-free baking soda”; you may have to buy it online or from a specialty store
Take good care.
Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Last Updated: September 2, 2020
Originally Published: September 1, 2014