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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. Every step we take to improve our cardiovascular health offers the opportunity for us to live a longer, healthier life.

Dr. Gabriel Mufuka, Cardiovascular Diseases Specialist, ThedaCare

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

“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. Gabriel Mufuka, a Cardiovascular Diseases Specialist with ThedaCare. “Too much sodium in our diet, though, can be a serious problem for our health.”

Just one teaspoon of table salt, which is a combination of sodium and chloride, has 2,325 milligrams of sodium. That’s slightly more than the daily limit of 2,300 milligrams recommended by health experts. The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day.

The American Heart Association and the 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.

Managing sodium intake is a great way to work toward a healthier heart and cardiovascular system.

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

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to an increased incidence of kidney stones and kidney disease, blindness, and heart failure, as well as heart attacks and strokes — the two greatest causes of death in the United States, Dr. Mufuka says. As we age, blood pressure tends to rise, so limiting sodium intake is even more important as we grow older.

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)
  • Poultry
  • Cheese
  • Eggs and omelets

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

  • Read nutritional labels
    Compare and choose foods to get less than 100% of your daily value of sodium each day (2,300 milligrams).
  • 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 or 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) or have carrot or celery sticks instead.
  • Consider your condiments 
    Choose light or reduced-sodium condiments, add oil and vinegar to salads rather than bottled dressings, and 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 for your meal to be prepared without table salt and request that sauces and salad dressings be served on the side, and then use less of them. You can also ask if nutrition information is available and then choose options that are lower in sodium.

Read Labels Carefully

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 has been reduced by at least 50% from 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 can be changed. They 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 crave less saltiness in your foods.

“Cutting back on sodium consumption can help improve heart health,” Dr. Mufuka 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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