Americans adults, on average, take in nearly 3,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, mostly through salty food, but it sneaks in through beverages and condiments, too. The new guidelines stipulate that adults in general should toe the line and eat no more than 2,300 mg of salt a day—about one teaspoon's worth. Anyone 51 or older and/or living with high blood pressure, as well as all African American adults, is encouraged to limit sodium intake to just 1,500 mg.
It's well known that eating too much salt is linked to heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. But more and more research is finding that a high-salt diet causes other serious and life-threatening diseases, including these three:
1. Cancer—A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 80,000 Japanese adults and found that excess salt is linked to a 15-percent higher risk of developing cancer.
2. Osteoporosis—High-salt diets also effect bone health, explains Jones. "High-salt diets have been shown to increase calcium loss," she explains. "When your bones lose calcium, they become weak. Over time, this leads to osteoporosis."
Jones points out that for every 2,300 mg of sodium ingested, on average, you excrete about 20 to 60 more milligrams of calcium.
3. Dementia—Other studies have found a link between high blood pressure and dementia. Since too much salt can send blood pressure skyrocketing, cutting out excess sodium could help save your brain, too. "Researchers have shown that treating hypertension can reduce dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease by half," says Jones. "Maybe your forgetfulness isn’t due to getting older—it could be caused by how much salt you eat!"
Americans are addicted to salt. In fact, Jones notes that brain scans show that consuming it causes the brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center, as it does when you eat fat and sugar. "That makes them highly additive, like nicotine and cocaine," Jones notes. But it is possible to beat the addiction, and that act can have wide-ranging, positive effects on your health. Much of the excess salt in our diet comes from processed and packaged grocery-store food, and restaurant and fast-food menu options (remember the Denny's lawsuit, when the restaurant chain was sued over the 2,600 milligrams of sodium in its turkey sandwiches, served with fries?). Some of it lurks in healthy vegetables that have been canned, or even "healthy" sandwich ingredients—things we turn to when we need to make dinner on the fly. "As our lives have become increasingly more hectic and fast-paced, salty processed and fast foods have become staples," says Jones.
One way to make strides in shrinking your salt intake is to target the worst offenders. Here's a list of some of the saltiest.
Top 10 Seriously Salty Foods in the Grocery Store (sodium content varies among brands)
Based on 2011 figures
1. Frozen TV dinners, 800 to 2,000-plus milligrams (mg)
2. Frozen pizza, 2,645 mg
3. Pretzel rods, 1,350 mg
4. Canned chili, 1040 mg
5. Lunch meat, 150 mg per slice
6. Canned soup, 870 mg
7. Packaged macaroni and cheese, 533 mg
8. Flour tortilla, 450 mg
9. Canned vegetables, 250 mg
10. Breakfast cereal, 175 mg
Top 10 Seriously Salty Restaurant Foods
Based on 2011 figures
1. Romano's Macaroni Grill Spaghetti e Meatballs with Bolognese, 3,040 mg
2. Quiznos Classic Italian Large Sub, 3,420 mg
3. Ruby Tuesday Shrimp Carbonara Pasta Classic, 3,766 mg
4. IHOP Country Chicken Fried Steak & Eggs with Sausage Gravy, 4,050 mg
5. California Pizza Kitchen Jamaican Jerk Pizza 4,236 mg
6. Red Lobster Admiral's Feast, 4,300 mg
7. Outback Steakhouse Bloomin' Onion, 5,508 mg
8. Applebee's Sizzling Skillet Shrimp Fajitas, 6,060 mg
9. Chili's Jalapeño Smokehouse Burger with Jalapeño Ranch, 6,460 mg
10. Cheesecake Factory, Factory Appetizer Favorites 6,700 mg
Once you start cutting some of the most sodium-dense foods in America out of your menu, Jones recommends focusing on eating foods rich in the minerals potassium, magnesium, and calcium to bring your body back into balance. These foods include: beet greens, spinach, yogurt, sweet potatoes, white beans, sardines, and bananas.