One thing is for certain: if you live in the U.S.A. odds are that you are getting between 2 and 4 times the amount of sodium that is reasonable, especially if you’re over 50. The recommended daily amount (RDA) as set by the government takes into account, primarily, age, and in the case of sodium (salt) the allowable levels decrease dramatically as you age. So, how much sodium per day should you have? It depends. And why be so worried about too much salt intake?
Your body needs a certain amount of sodium to function optimally. Sodium helps to maintain the appropriate balance of body fluids. It also assists in the transmission of nerve impulses, affecting the contraction and relaxation of muscles. Your kidneys, too, require a certain level of sodium for peak performance; if they find their supply low, they hold on to what they have, but if it’s higher than necessary, the excess sodium is excreted from your body in urine. But there’s a limit to that…
What happens when there is way too much sodium, as is so common in western civilization populations, is that the kidneys have nowhere to dump the excess and it is released into your bloodstream, accumulating in your blood. It hangs around in your bloodstream, generally making it more difficult for your heart to pump blood smoothly, blocking the flow. Your heart has to work harder and the pressure on your arteries can be severe. Bad scenario. When this is combined with high LDL cholesterol levels, the mixture can be deadly.
Excess sodium is a direct cause of hypertension, or high blood pressure; that can lead to heart disease and attacks, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. That probably makes you want to toss that salt-shaker into the trash can!
Sources of Sodium
If your heart begs you to reduce the amount of sodium in your body, that should be easy. You can just stop salting your food automatically at every meal. Simple. Well, it’s not that easy. Processed and prepared foods contain, in some cases, almost a full daily allowance of sodium per serving! Among the worst offenders are snack foods such as potato chips and everybody’s favorite, pizza.
Since mankind began to preserve foods for times when they were in short supply, salt has been ubiquitous. It acts as preserving agent and a flavoring or seasoning, and at one time was a form of barter or currency. It went haywire from there. Drab or bland foods could be made to taste much better with a little extra salt. And the whole insidious process took hold, increasing as food was more readily available in packages.
Food processors are able to hide salt in their ingredients lists on labels by using several versions of a word that also means “salt”. Watch for these salt synonyms on the labels of packaged and processed foods:
- baking soda
- baking powder
- monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite
- sodium alginate
- sodium phosphate
Salt is everywhere. It’s lurking on your healthy bran muffin and in the margarine you switched to for the express purpose of reducing cholesterol. These facts may surprise you about the volume of sodium in the foods you thought were low or lacking in salt:
- All types of fish, meat, vegetables and dairy products (even basics like milk) naturally contain salt. That is before you add table salt to your food! This is not as bad as processed foods, but still must be taken into account when you’re adding up the total sodium you ingest per day and then comparing it to the RDA limits. For example, a cup of low-fat milk contains 107 mg of sodium.
- A single bagel, with no butter or other spread, even if it’s whole wheat, packs a walloping 532 mg of sodium! A healthy-looking slice of whole wheat bread has 132 mg.
- All canned and dry-package soups are full of salt, even the ones marked as being lower in sodium. Because they are convenient and taste so good (possibly because of the high levels of salt), people tend to eat them more often than they should. That soothing bowl of chicken soup, heated up right from the can? One cup of it contains 1,100 mg of sodium. Your taste buds might crave it, but your heart says no!
Food processing companies know that people are struggling to reduce their salt intake, but they are not prepared to see their sales slip, so they remove some of the salt and (in accordance with government regulations) relabel their products, rather euphemistically.
Here is a guideline to what these new-fangled labels really mean:
- “sodium-free” or “salt-free” conveys less than 5mg of sodium per serving (check what defines a serving size; that, too, should be on the nutrition facts panel of the label)
- “very low sodium” indicates less than 35mg of salt per serving
- “low salt” tells you that one serving offers a maximum of 140mg of sodium
- a tricky one… “reduced salt” or “less salt” means that the salt level is 25% less than the regular version of the same product; you have to find out what the “regular” one contains before this makes any sense
- “light”, just like “reduced” leaves you to determine how much salt the regular version contains, but in this case it’s 50%less than whatever…
- “unsalted” suggests that no salt has been added, but that doesn’t mean there is no naturally occurring salt in the product
So, How Much Salt Can You Take in Every Day?
One tiny teaspoon of salt contains 2,325 mg of sodium!
The maximum allowable daily salt an adult under the age of 50 should consume is only 2,300 mgs. If you eat one cup of tinned chicken noodle soup and have it with a bagel and a glass of milk, you’re pretty much done for the day. People over the age of 50, because the risk of heart disease increases with age, should limit their salt intake to only 1,500 mgs.
Certain people are more prone to issues from high sodium intake, and they include: diabetes patients; anyone with high blood pressure; African Americans with black skin; and those who suffer from kidney disease. If you fall into one or more of these categories, salt is your enemy, possibly a mortal one.
One tiny teaspoon of salt contains 2,325 mg of sodium! There goes your day! If you want to decrease your sodium, and almost everyone should, there are ways to get around it. Here are some great ways to avoid or replace sodium with alternatives in your diet:
- some salt can be washed off, even a little; try rinsing canned vegetables before cooking them
- whenever possible, eat fresh whole foods, and make sure that includes lots of fruit and vegetables
- look for low-sodium versions of packaged and processed goods
- buy condiments that are good alternatives to salt, or make your own ketchup (it’s easy if you have a blender!), using tart, fresh tomatoes and herbs instead of salt; it tastes great!
- take the salt-shaker off the table
- steer clear of accents that are full of sodium and find alternatives; for example, where possible, try substituting 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire Sauce (55mg of sodium) for an equal amount of soy sauce (1,100 mg)
Afraid food will taste flat? Try gradually reducing the amount of salt you ingest; your taste buds will adjust accordingly and your blood pressure will thank you. Start incorporating other seasonings, like freshly ground black pepper, or combinations of fresh or dried herbs to add zing to any dish. The exception may be baked goods, even bread. Salt is a necessary ingredient in leavening and preserving baked items. Try using a little less than the recipe calls for, or ensuring that what you eat with the bread or cookies doesn’t add sodium to it.
Tracking the amount of sodium you ingest now, with the plan to reduce it, is fairly easy. Charts are available and product labels tell the tale. How much sodium per day should you have? Likely a lot less than you’re eating now, so cut back (gradually) and love your heart!