How Eating Salt Helps (and Destroys) Your Health

The truth about sodium: The good and the bad.

August 21, 2014
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To love sodium or not to love sodium? It is a question Americans have been struggling with for decades (maybe even centuries). From fast food french fries to frozen breads, sodium is usually hidden away in many processed foods that we know and love. Cheese? Cold cuts? Soup? Ketchup? Cheeseburgers? Even your Thanksgiving turkey? These are some of the worst sodium culprits, according to the book Lower Your Blood Pressure Naturally, along with pasta dishes, meat dishes, and savory snacks.  

With so much sodium packed into everyday foods and restaurant meals, researchers are becoming more concerned with the correlation between sodium intake and high blood pressure. According to Sarí Harrar, author of Lower Your Blood Pressure Naturally, sodium-filled goods are having a detrimental effect on hearts across the nation. "When Harvard Medical School scientists tracked sodium intake and blood pressure numbers of 8,208 people for 6 years, they concluded in 2012 that a high-salt diet is responsible for up to 40 percent of high blood pressure cases in America."

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So why is it that one of the most important minerals for our bodies is starting to turn against us?  Here are some facts about sodium to help you better understand why you need it—and how to better control sodium intake for a much healthier, happier heart.  

The Good
You may not know it, but you need sodium to stay healthy. Although an excess of sodium can raise your blood pressure, a moderate amount can actually help you control your BP. Sodium also keeps fluids balanced in your bloodstream and is good for your muscles. And believe it or not, without sodium your brain would have a hard time sending signals to the rest of your body. To put it bluntly, sodium is necessary for human survival. The only problem is sodium is no longer scarce—it can be found everywhere. So something that humans once craved because they rarely had it is now at our fingertips every day—and our bodies have yet to shut off our survival instinct to consume.     

The Bad
Humans, on average, consume too much sodium. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the average daily sodium intake for Americans age 2 years and older is more than 3,400 milligrams. So how much should you actually consume? Less than 2,300 milligrams per day (about a teaspoon). People with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should only consume 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. The modern food system is making that harder than ever, given that most of the sodium in our diets is hidden in processed foods.

We often think that sodium comes from a saltshaker, so if we refrain from shaking salt on everything we think we're okay. But in all actuality, 40 percent of Americans' sodium intake comes from these 10 foods:

 
  1. Breads and rolls
  2. Cold cuts and cured meats
  3. Pizza
  4. Fresh and processed poultry
  5. Soups
  6. Sandwiches, including cheeseburgers
  7. Cheese
  8. Pasta dishes
  9. Meat-mixed dishes
  10. Snacks such as chips, pretzels, and popcorn

To top it all off, most of us like sodium. We like the taste of salt (a combination of sodium and chloride)—it adds flavor and many dishes/foods taste bland without it. Also, humans have learned to make food last with salt. Harrar notes, "This mineral works as a flavor enhancer that also extends shelf life, adds tenderness, improves the color of hot dogs, and contributes to the appealing brown hue of the crusts on baked goods."   

So what happens when we consume too much sodium?  Despite what the media may have said in recent years, recent research has found that if you consume too much sodium, you are at a higher risk for high blood pressure. When there's too much sodium coursing through your system, your body compensates by flooding your bloodstream with water, which in turn makes your heart work harder. Also, a 2012 Harvard Medical School study found that too much salt can damage your blood vessels and raise your blood pressure. 

The Healthy
So what can you do to keep your heart healthy? Cut back on the sodium. According to the CDC, "if all Americans followed the recommended limits for sodium, national rates for high blood pressure would drop by a quarter, saving tens of thousands of lives each year." And research has found that reducing sodium intake tames blood pressure even when medications don't work. Try eating natural foods instead of processed foods.  Substitute a cucumber for pickles or a tomato for ketchup. Avoid salt loaded meals at restaurants and become familiar with food labels, always checking sodium levels. For tricks to cook without salt, check out these  top salt-free flavor enhancers.