Controlling Sodium: Ease Up on ‘Passing the Salt’

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September 25, 2018

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Sodium is a mineral that’s key for maintaining a normal balance of fluid in the body. It is also found naturally in foods, and most significantly, freely added to meals at the dinner table or the drive-through eatery. That sodium is referred to as “salt.”

Bottom line: Americans still consumer to much sodium in the form of salt.

Salt is composed of two minerals: sodium and chloride. Table salt contains about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. One teaspoon of salt has about 2,300 mg (milligrams) of sodium.  And that’s precisely what the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that a person consume in a single day — about a teaspoon of table salt.

The amount of salt in a packaged food is listed as “sodium” on the Nutrition Facts label. Dietary recommendations and food labels use sodium, rather than salt, since it is the sodium component of salt that is most important to your health.

Most significantly, the U.S. recommendations state that individuals with hypertension, or high blood pressure, should restrict their intake of sodium even further — down to 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

“Yes, it’s one teaspoon of salt that is recommended generally,” says Carla Duenas, registered dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida. “But what I like to talk to people about is that they should be counting the amount of milligrams. They should identify the food sources that have the highest amount of sodium and that is what’s going to make the biggest difference.”

Counting milligrams can be challenging, concedes Ms. Duenas. For example, when you’re preparing a fish dinner, you may not realize how much sodium that fish contains, and then there are the sauces, dressings and maybe the rice that accompanies the fish. Even a seemingly healthy meal could contain more than the recommended amount of sodium.

Americans consume about 3,400 mg of sodium per day, which is much more than the recommended 2,300 mg. The sodium mostly comes from salt, 75 percent of which is found in prepared, processed or restaurant food. In addition to  high blood pressure, studies have linked too much sodium in the diet to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.

Why is Too Much Salt Bad for You?

When there’s extra sodium in the bloodstream, the total amount of fluid in your blood vessels increase. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. This puts an extra burden on your heart and blood vessels. In some people, this may lead to high blood pressure.

“If you have high blood pressure, the recommended amount of sodium is very restricted — 1,500 mg per day,” says Ms. Duenas. “You really have to be mindful where you are eating, particularly if you go out to eat too much or you’re eating too much processed foods (which tend to be high in sodium).”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been pushing food producers to lower the sodium content of their products. And some local governments are taking their own actions. The Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed legislation in June requiring sodium warnings on restaurant menus. New York City passed the nation’s first sodium warning policy in 2015.

The FDA recommends taking the following steps to reduce sodium intake:

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Consume foods that are rich in potassium. Potassium can help blunt the effects of sodium on blood pressure. The recommended intake of potassium for adolescents and adults is 4,700 mg/day. Potassium-rich foods include leafy, green vegetables and fruits from vines.
  • Flavor food with pepper and other herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Choose unsalted snacks.
  • Read food labels and choose foods low in sodium.

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