How A Low Sodium Diet Can Save You

By:    Published: November 28, 2012

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Sodium – it is essential to life, and yet, it can be quite deadly to some people when ingested in large amounts on a daily basis. Most Americans consume far more sodium than they should, which can lead to a number of health problems. The worst part is most people don’t know they’re taking in too much sodium until they’ve found out that something is wrong with them. If you’re looking to reduce sodium intake due to certain health risks, or it was recommended by your doctor, here is some helpful information on planning a low sodium diet.

Who Could Benefit From A Low Sodium Diet?

The short answer to that question is that nearly everyone can benefit from a low sodium diet. The reason is that the average American consumes five or more teaspoons of sodium per day, about 20 times what is necessary. The human body only needs about a quarter of a teaspoon of sodium per day to maintain healthy functions. All this extra sodium usually comes in the form of table salt and can add up to some serious health problems.

Increased sodium intake causes blood pressure to rise. Over time, high blood pressure becomes a major contributor to cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as other problems, such as kidney disease and problems in the brain. According to Gordon Tomaselli, M.D., chief of cardiology at Johns Hopkins, some studies have shown that lowering salt intake across the board can have a profound impact on lowering blood pressure and the risks of developing cardiovascular diseases and strokes.

[Related: 10 Tips For Lowering Blood Pressure Naturally]

There are some groups of people for whom a low sodium diet is a matter of life and death. Those people include those who already have cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure. Also certain races, such as African-Americans, are more sensitive to high amounts of sodium.

While not a matter of life and death, swelling (edema) is a problem for many people, including pregnant women. Because sodium causes the body to retain fluid, reducing sodium intake will help reduce the fluid retention that causes the swelling.

Where Sodium Is Found In The American Diet

The main form of sodium in the American diet is sodium chloride, or table salt. While most whole foods, such as meats and vegetables, do have some sodium in them naturally, the amount is low enough that it wouldn't cause concern for anyone.

The amount of sodium in foods dramatically increases when it is packaged and processed because salt and other forms of sodium play a major role in preserving foods. There are also certain preservatives and leavening agents that contain different types of sodium as well, all of which affect the body the same way. So this means that even if a package of snack cakes doesn't taste salty, it could be extremely high in sodium. In fact, many experts believe that the sodium in processed foods can make up about 75 percent of a person's daily sodium intake. So it's easy to see how making healthier food choices can dramatically lower a person's sodium intake.

Healthy Sodium Intake

The ideal amount of sodium varies based on a few factors, but the majority of American's need no more than 2,000 to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. While this isn't exactly low, it is considerably lower than the amount most Americans consume in a day. The American Heart Association recommends an even lower amount for average healthy Americans, at just 1,500 milligrams per day.

Those with cardiovascular problems, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure are typically limited to no more than 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams per day, but this can vary widely based upon the seriousness of each situation. Sometimes the limit is as low as 1,000 milligrams per day. African-Americans, because of the higher risks, should aim to keep their sodium intake under 1,500 milligrams per day.

[Related: Using The DASH Diet For High Blood Pressure]

Can You Go too Low?

The vast majority of people will benefit from lowering their sodium intake, but there are situations in which a person's sodium intake can be too low.

  • Those who have certain rare forms of kidney disease or hormone-related diseases should speak with their doctor before undertaking a low sodium diet because these conditions can cause the body to lose sodium and cause the level of sodium in the body to fall too low.
  • Those who experience problems with low blood pressure or fainting may not want to lower their sodium intake either, as this can make blood pressure drop even lower and contribute to more fainting.
  • There are also certain medications that cause the body to shed high levels of sodium, and people taking those medications, such as corticosteroids, should not reduce their sodium intake either.
  • Also, those who have been vomiting or had diarrhea may experience low levels of sodium, and should look to replace the sodium they've lost.

Remember that some sodium is essential to healthy bodily functions, so those who lose large amounts of sodium or who have problems with low blood pressure should not reduce their daily sodium intake. However, these are rare instances. Most people can safely consume a low sodium diet and reap all of the benefits without any issues. Many of these problems are most common in older people, especially those living in long-term care facilities, making them the more likely to experience problems with low blood sodium.

Tips For Reducing Sodium Intake

The most obvious way that people can reduce their sodium intake is to not add salt to their food. But this can be a difficult habit to break and it may not be enough. The reason is that the majority of foods on supermarket shelves contain large amounts of salt. Even things that people would think of as healthy, such as canned vegetables, are high in sodium unless they are specifically packaged without added salt. And contrary to popular belief, sea salt is not better than table salt when it comes to lowering sodium.

Certain specialty items are staples in the low-sodium kitchen such as salt-free seasonings, bouillons and stocks and sodium free baking powder.

There are ways people can dramatically reduce the amount of salt that they consume each day, including:

  • Learn to read nutrition labels carefully, including the ingredient list. This will not only tell a person the amount of salt in the product, but will also tell the person the source. If it says "sodium" or "salt," it's going to affect sodium levels in the body. If a product is low sodium, or packaged without salt, the label will say so.
  • Whenever possible, choose all-natural, whole foods. This means fresh meats, vegetables and grain products. One of the highest sodium culprits are packaged breads and baked goods. Learning to make these at home will not only save money, but they will reduce sodium intake as well.
  • Keeping a food journal with the amounts of foods eaten and the nutritional information will help pinpoint where levels of sodium can be reduced and help keep track of overall sodium intake.
  • Avoid using salt substitutes without talking to a doctor first. The reason is that these substitutes are made from potassium, and too much potassium in the body can cause problems with the heart and kidneys.

While a small amount is necessary for the body to function normally, when it comes to sodium, less is definitely more. Not only will reducing sodium intake result in weight loss from water weight, it will also help to keep blood pressure at health levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and strokes, and that's something that is good for everyone.

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