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Salt: The Good, the Bad and the Sneaky

Last updated: February 2, 2023

Cutting back on sodium consumption can help improve heart health.

Dr. Oleg Chebotarev, Cardiologist, ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care

Many of us love salty snacks, but all that sodium can add up. In the United States, most people consume much more sodium than experts recommend.

“Sodium is an essential nutrient the human body needs to allow our muscles and nerves to work smoothly and to maintain a balance of body fluids,” says Dr. Oleg Chebotarev, a Cardiologist with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “Too much sodium in our diet, though, can pose a serious problem for our health.”

Salt Recommendations

Just one teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 milligrams of sodium. That’s slightly more than the daily limit of 2,300 milligrams that health experts recommend. The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day.

The American Heart Association and World Health Organization offer a stricter guideline of 1,500 milligrams per day, or just over a half of teaspoon. They recommend that people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease keep their intake below 1,500 milligrams.

Risks of Too Much Sodium

“A high-sodium diet attracts water into our bloodstream, which then increases the volume of blood in our system. That, in turn, raises blood pressure,” Dr. Chebotarev says.

When blood pressure is elevated for an extended period of time, it makes the heart work harder. The higher force of blood flow can damage our arteries and vital organs.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to an increased incidence of heart attack and stroke — two of the most common causes of death in the United States, Dr. Chebotarev says. Other sodium-related risks include kidney stones and kidney disease, blindness, and heart failure.

As we age, blood pressure tends to rise, so limiting sodium intake is even more important as we grow older. Cutting back on sodium is a great way to work toward a healthier heart and cardiovascular system.

Not Just the Salt Shaker

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 70% of the sodium Americans consume comes from overly processed or prepared foods, including:

  • Breads and rolls
  • Pizza
  • Sandwiches
  • Cold cuts and cured meats
  • Soups 
  • Burritos and tacos
  • Savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, snack mixes, and crackers)
  • Cheese

Reducing Sodium Intake

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers these suggestions for decreasing sodium intake:

  • Prepare your own food from scratch when you can. Limit the use of packaged sauces, mixes, and “instant” products (including flavored rice, instant noodles, and ready-made pasta).
  • Add flavor without adding sodium. Limit the amount of table salt you add to foods when cooking, baking, or at the table. Try no-salt seasoning blends and herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your food.
  • Buy fresh. Choose fresh meat, poultry, and seafood, rather than processed varieties. Avoid fresh meat and poultry that has salt water or a saline solution added.
  • Watch your veggies. Buy fresh, frozen (no sauce or seasoning), or low-sodium/no-salt-added canned vegetables.
  • Give sodium the “rinse.” Rinse sodium-containing canned foods, such as beans, tuna, and vegetables before eating. This removes some of the sodium.
  • “Unsalt” your snacks. Choose low-sodium or no-salt-added nuts, seeds, and snack products (such as chips and pretzels). Better yet, have veggies such as carrots or celery sticks instead.
  • Consider your condiments. Choose light or reduced-sodium condiments. Add oil and vinegar to salads rather than bottled dressings. Use only a small amount of seasoning from flavoring packets instead of the entire packet.
  • Reduce your portion size. Less food means less sodium. Prepare smaller portions at home and consume less when eating out. Choose smaller sizes, split an entrée with a friend, or take home part of your meal.
  • Make lower-sodium choices at restaurants. Ask to have your meal prepared without table salt. Request to have sauces and salad dressings served on the side, and use less of them. Ask if nutrition information is available, and then choose lower-sodium options.

Decoding Labels

The FDA also recommends that shoppers look carefully at salt/sodium claims on food packaging and avoid products with more than 200 milligrams of sodium — or 20% of daily value — per serving. Here’s what sodium claims mean:

  • Sodium-free or salt-free. Each serving in this product contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium.
  • Very low sodium. Each serving contains 35 milligrams of sodium or less.
  • Low sodium. Each serving contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less.
  • Reduced or less sodium. The product contains at least 25% less sodium than the regular version.
  • Light in sodium. The sodium content is at least 50% less than the regular version.
  • Unsalted or no salt added. No salt is added during the processing of a food that normally contains salt. However, some foods with these labels may still be high in sodium because some of the ingredients may contain a lot of sodium.

Dietitians note that salt is an acquired/developed taste that you can change. Experts recommend cutting back on salt gradually and using salt-free seasonings to adjust the taste of foods. In time, your taste buds can change, and cravings for salt can decrease.

“Cutting back on sodium consumption can help improve heart health,” Dr. Chebotarev says. “Every step we take to improve our cardiovascular health offers the opportunity for us to live a longer, healthier life.”

Know your heart risk.

Talk to your primary care provider about your heart health numbers at your annual wellness visit.

Tags: Dr. Gabriel Mufuka healthy eating heart health Salt snacking sodium

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