If you're like many people, you're getting far more sodium than is recommended, and that could lead to serious health problems.
You probably aren't even aware of just how much sodium is in your diet. Consider that a single teaspoon of table salt, which is a combination of sodium and chloride, has 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium. And it's not just table salt you have to worry about. Many processed and prepared foods contain sodium.
Sodium: Essential in small amounts
- Helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body
- Helps transmit nerve impulses
- Influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles
Your kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in your body for optimal health. When your body sodium is low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When body sodium is high, your kidneys excrete the excess in urine.
But if for some reason your kidneys can't eliminate enough sodium, the sodium starts to build up in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases, which makes your heart work harder and increases pressure in your arteries. Such diseases as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis and chronic kidney disease can make it hard for your kidneys to keep sodium levels balanced.
Some people's bodies are more sensitive to the effects of sodium than are others. If you're sodium sensitive, you retain sodium more easily, leading to fluid retention and increased blood pressure. If this becomes chronic, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure.
Sodium: How much do you need?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you're age 51 or older, or if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Keep in mind that these are upper limits, and less is usually best, especially if you're sensitive to the effects of sodium. If you aren't sure how much sodium your diet should include, talk to your doctor or dietitian.
Tips for cutting back on sodium
Virtually all Americans can benefit from reducing the sodium in their diet. Here are more ways you can cut back on sodium:
- Eat more fresh foods. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. Also, fresh meat is lower in sodium than are luncheon meat, bacon, hot dogs, sausage and ham. Buy fresh or frozen poultry or meat that hasn't been injected with a sodium-containing solution. Look on the label or ask your butcher.
- Opt for low-sodium products. If you do buy processed foods, choose those that are labeled "low sodium." Better yet, buy plain whole-grain rice and pasta instead of ones that have added seasonings.
- Remove salt from recipes whenever possible. You can leave out the salt in many recipes, including casseroles, soups, stews and other main dishes that you cook. Look for cookbooks that focus on lowering risks of high blood pressure and heart disease.
- Limit use of sodium-laden condiments. Soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces, dips, ketchup, mustard and relish all contain sodium.
- Use herbs, spices and other flavorings to season foods. Use fresh or dried herbs, spices, zest from citrus fruit, and fruit juices to jazz up your meals. Sea salt, however, isn't a good substitute. It has about the same amount of sodium as table salt.
- Use salt substitutes wisely. Some salt substitutes or light salts contain a mixture of table salt and other compounds. To achieve that familiar salty taste, you may use too much of the substitute — and get too much sodium. Also, many salt substitutes contain potassium chloride. Although potassium can lessen some of the problems from excess sodium, too much potassium can be harmful especially if you have kidney problems or if you're taking medications for congestive heart failure or high blood pressure that cause potassium retention
Sodium: Be a savvy shopper
Taste alone may not tell you which foods are high in sodium. For example, you may not think a bagel tastes salty, but a typical 4-inch (10-centimeter) oat-bran bagel has about 600 mg of sodium, and even a slice of whole-wheat bread contains about 100 mg of sodium.
So how can you tell which foods are high in sodium? Read food labels. The Nutrition Facts label found on most packaged and processed foods lists the amount of sodium in each serving. It also lists whether the ingredients include salt or sodium-containing compounds, such as:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Baking soda (also called sodium bicarbonate)
- Baking powder
- Disodium phosphate
- Sodium alginate
- Sodium citrate
- Sodium nitrite
Try to avoid products with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. And be sure you know how many servings are in a package — that information is also on the Nutrition Facts label.