How does salt and sodium impact the human body?

What’s the big deal about salt and sodium intake?

A constant health message that the public hears is “reduce intake of salt and sodium.” Where do salt and sodium come from and why does consuming too much put our health at risk?

The human body does need a small amount of sodium to function. These functions include: Conducting nerve impulses, contracting and relaxing muscles and maintaining the proper balance of water and minerals. Most Americans consume far too much sodium in their daily diet.

Consuming too much sodium leads to an accumulation of sodium in the body, which causes the body to hold on to more fluid to dilute the sodium. This increase in fluid volume in the blood stream is what contributes to high blood pressure, which in turn can contribute to heart attack, stroke and kidney problems.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommended that the intake of sodium for an American adult is less than 2,300 milligrams per day. That amount should be reduced to 1,500 milligrams per day if an individual is age 51 and older, African American descent or those who have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

Common table salt, which is also known as sodium chloride, is about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. According to the American Heart Association, the following are the approximate amounts of sodium, in milligrams, in a given amount of table salt:

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 milligrams sodium
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 milligrams sodium
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 milligrams sodium
  • 1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 milligrams sodium

It should also be noted that sea salt has the same amount of sodium as table salt. To read more on the differences between the two, this article from the Mayo Clinic is helpful.

A common misconception about the chronic overconsumption of salt in America is that it comes from the salt shaker. According to the American Heart Association, about 75 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed food and restaurant food. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that only 10 types of foods account for 44 percent of dietary sodium consumed each day.

This can be frustrating to individuals who never salt their food at the table, but have conditions for which they are told to reduce their salt intake. To truly decrease the amount of sodium that is consumed we need to be more creative than simply not salting our food at the table.

To lower sodium intake from processed and restaurant foods, Michigan State University Extension recommends cooking at home more often and focusing on using fresh foods that are naturally low in sodium, such as:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Fresh meats, poultry and fish
  • Dry beans and legumes
  • Eggs, milk and yogurt
  • Grains, such as rice

If processed foods do need to be used, some ways to reduce sodium intake include:

  • “Low-sodium” versions of canned food and soups
  • Drain and rinse canned vegetables before use
  • Try frozen produce in place of canned
  • Eat highly processed foods in smaller amounts or only occasionally
  • Read nutrition labels and choose the version lowest in sodium
  • Add new flavors while cooking, using salt-free herbs, spices, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic and mix and match to make new, exciting flavors

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