Sodium is an essential mineral found in many of the foods we eat every day. And while some sodium is necessary for your body to function properly, high sodium intake can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke by elevating your blood pressure. Unfortunately, many Americans consume far more sodium than they need to, increasing the risk of serious illness.
Sodium, commonly consumed as sodium chloride (table salt), is often used interchangeably with salt, but they are not the same. Sodium is a mineral, while table salt consists of sodium plus chloride. It is a major component of our food supply. Although sodium can be consumed in non-chloride forms as well (sodium bicarbonate [i.e., baking soda] and monosodium glutamate [MSG]), salt provides approximately 90 percent of dietary sodium. One teaspoon of table salt has roughly 2,400 mg of sodium, which is more than the recommended daily limit of 2,300 mg. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 1,500 mg for ideal heart health. By comparison, the average American ingests over 3,400 mg each day.
Your body’s sodium levels are balanced by your kidneys, which hold and filter that sodium to support your body’s fluid levels and muscle function. When your sodium levels are elevated, your kidneys will try to eliminate some of it in your urine. However, once your sodium levels are elevated to a certain point, your kidneys have a hard time eliminating it. As a result, the sodium stays in your blood, and your body retains more water to dilute that sodium. This is partly why many people report feeling “puffy” or “bloated” after eating a salty meal.
Unsurprisingly, when your kidneys have trouble eliminating sodium from your blood, it can increase the amount of protein in your urine, which puts you at an increased risk for kidney decline and failure. It also contributes to an increased risk of developing kidney stones. If you already have kidney issues, excess sodium can make those issues worse and result in kidney failure.
Increased sodium levels and the increase in fluid in your blood also make it difficult for your heart to pump, which can add stress to your arteries and blood vessels. The more stress put on your heart, arteries, and blood vessels, the more likely you are to develop high blood pressure, which can cause heart disease. Many people don’t realize they have high blood pressure until it’s too late since the symptoms can be hard to detect.
Most foods contain some amount of sodium naturally, including vegetables, dairy products, and meat. However, certain foods, like processed foods and those cooked in restaurants, account for roughly 70 percent of the sodium Americans eat every day.
Even foods that don’t taste salty can be loaded with sodium. Foods like bread, pizza, sandwiches, soup, cheese, eggs, and shellfish can significantly contribute to your daily sodium intake. Other places to look out for high sodium are in canned foods. Canned beans and vegetables often sit in a sodium mixture that preserves freshness and reduces the chance of bacterial growth. While fresh or frozen is best, rinsing your canned foods before you eat or cook them will significantly reduce their sodium content.
There are various versions of salt on the market. In addition to regular table salt, there’s kosher salt, sea salt, and Himalayan salt. You may wonder, do any of these options provide any health benefits? The bottom line is that they’re all salt and have the same essential nutritional value. There aren’t any proven health benefits to one over another. Some recipes may suggest using a specific type of salt, but it should be used sparingly.
The first step in cutting back your sodium intake is to evaluate just how much you’re taking in daily. Start by reading the labels of the foods you eat at home and compare the serving size with the amount you are actually eating per serving. If you eat fast food or takeout often, many corporate chain restaurants offer estimated nutrition information on their websites for regular menu items.
Once you’ve evaluated where you’re getting the most sodium, the next step in cutting back is to consume less salt. This seems easier said than done, but swapping out canned vegetables for frozen ones, buying fewer salty snacks like chips, and choosing healthy, whole foods over processed meats and pre-prepared meals are all things you can do to lower your sodium intake quickly.
One of the most effective ways to lower your sodium intake is by cooking at home as much as possible. When cooking for yourself, you can control how much salt you do or don’t include in your meals. Cooking without salt can taste bland at first, but incorporating other seasonings, like pepper, chili powder, paprika, and garlic, can add flavor back into dishes when salt is missing. There are several salt-free versions of seasoning products that you can find at your local supermarket. If you’re buying pre-made spice mixes, look for ones with low or no salt added.
Lowering your salt intake can be daunting, especially when it seems to be present in virtually every meal we eat. Thankfully, by paying attention to the amount of processed food you eat and incorporating fresh, whole ingredients into your diet, you can improve your blood pressure in as little as a few weeks.