In its latest update of the Dietary Guidelines (2010), the U.S. government warns explicitly about the health risks of high sodium intake. “Virtually all Americans,” the report says, “consume more sodium than they need.”
The Problem Is That We Don’t Always Know
How Much Salt Is in Our Food
While sodium in small quantities is an important nutrient to have, too much sodium intake can cause an unhealthy elevation of blood pressure. Chronically high blood pressure increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure and kidney disease.
Way too much salt
Sodium is primarily consumed in form of salt (sodium chloride). But the salt we add during food preparation or at the dinner table is only a small portion of the total amount in our diet. The lion’s share comes from salt content in processed foods. This includes many items that don’t even taste salty.
The daily average sodium intake of Americans over two years of age is currently estimated to be around 3,400 mg – about 30% higher than the 2,300 mg recommended for healthy people (about one leveled teaspoon) and 1,500 mg for those suffering from heart disease and high blood pressure.
Who is at risk?
We all are at risk of eating too much salt because we don’t always know how much sodium is present in our food. The Dietary Guidelines advise that people over 50 years of age, and anyone who has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease, should stay within the recommended limits. Certain genetic predispositions and ethnicity may also factor in. The American Heart Association encourages everyone to reduce salt consumption to 1,500 mg (about a half teaspoon) per day, regardless of any other factors.
What can you do?
Considering that most people’s diet includes a great amount of processed and ready-to-eat foods, it is hard to see how sodium intake could be controlled on an individual basis. But there are a few rules health-conscious consumers can live by:
Choose fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables, over processed items. Cut back on salted crackers, chips and nuts. Make soups from scratch (instead of buying cans) and prepare your own broth. Add taste with herbs and spices other than salt. And get rid of the salt-shaker at your next garage sale.
It gets trickier when you eat out or travel. At better restaurants, you can ask the chef to have your meal prepared without salt, but you don’t really know how much a particular place is willing to accommodate you.
For all items you can’t buy fresh, you should make the extra effort to read and decipher Nutrition Fact labels. This is not always easy because the data listed on the panel are calculated in relation to servings sizes, which are not always identical with the container content. In fact, some of these calculations can be, let’s say, counter-intuitive.
Last but not least, keep in mind that reducing portion sizes also lets you cut back on salt intake. Mindless munching is never a good idea, but if you do need a snack once in a while, make sure you’re extra careful with the salty kind.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in reading “Hypertension – The Silent Killer.”