Pass on the Salt, Please

By Kimberly Greene, Sargent Choice Nutrition Center Dietetic Intern

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What is the first thing you consider when you look at a nutrition label? For most, it’s serving size, calories, fat, and, sometimes, sugar1.  Sodium is often overlooked, especially by young adults who are perhaps not yet concerned with phrases like “hypertension” or “heart disease”. Yet studies are now suggesting that it may be even more important for this age group to start becoming aware. Excess sodium intake has been shown to cause hypertension in both children and adults. High blood pressure in child and adolescence increases the risk of hypertension in adulthood, early development of cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Furthermore, this risk increases in those who are overweight or obese2.

I think there is often confusion surrounding the issue of sodium, some of which I hope to clear up here. Let’s start with the basics.

Sodium is an essential mineral in the body for maintaining fluid balance, as well as helping the nervous system and muscles function properly. Your kidneys play a key role in regulating the amount of sodium stored in the body, but they can run into trouble if you consume too much on a daily basis. Sodium begins to accumulate in the blood and is followed by water. As a result, blood volume increases and causes more pressure in the arteries as your heart works harder to pump blood around your body. Over time, high blood pressure (known as hypertension) increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and more. Furthermore, high blood pressure in childhood or adolescence has been associated with early development of these diseases and premature death.

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In the U.S., almost all of our sodium intake comes from salt; 75% of it found in processed or restaurant foods, while only 25% is added during cooking or at the table4. The USDA recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg/day, and states that those who are over 51, African American, or who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should consume no more than 1,500 mg/day3. To put it in perspective, this is less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day. We only need a very small amount, but the average sodium intake in the US is over 3,400 mg/day4.

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So, what are some ways you can reduce sodium in your diet? The first, and perhaps most important, is reading nutrition labels. Foods that are usually high in sodium are frozen meals, pizza, lunch meats, sauces/marinades, instant/flavored rice or pasta mixes, and canned soups. Cut back on these items, and if you do buy them look for low or reduced sodium options, and those with no more than 700mg of sodium. Rinse canned tuna or beans, as this can remove up to 41% of the sodium5. At restaurants, avoid dishes that are sauce or cheese heavy and choose lightly-marinated fish or salad with dressing on the side. When cooking, add extra herbs and spices to boost the flavor of the recipe instead of relying on salt.

For more ideas of how to reduce the sodium in your own diet, making an appointment with a registered dietitian can be a great resource. If you have a family history of hypertension, want to find out more about salt sensitivity, or have other medical questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor. Have your blood pressure taken annually and ask to discuss what your results mean. Communication can be one of the most powerful measures to prevent chronic disease risks and advocate for your health.

  1. Graham DJ, Jeffery RW. Location, Location, Location: Eye-Tracking Evidence that Consumers Preferentially View Prominently Positioned Nutrition Information. 2011. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111 (11);1704-1711
  2. Yang, Quanhe, et al. Sodium Intake and Blood Pressure Among US Children and Adolescents. 2012. Pediatrics.
  3. USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. www.dietaryguidelines.gov. Accessed Feb 13 2013
  4. USDA. NHANES What we eat in America. Sodium Intake of the U.S. Population
  5. Duyff RL, Mount JR, Jones JB. Sodium Reduction in Canned Beans After Draining, Rinsing. 2011. Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, 9(2).


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