Sodium - Everything You Need to Know

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

Sodium, commonly known as salt, has been with us for many years. Not only did it help humans preserve foods before refrigerators existed in the forms of jerky and pickled goods, but it also became a currency of exchange in some civilizations (thus, forming the root of the word "salary"), and made bland foods taste better. However, in recent years, an excessive amount of sodium in our diets has taken its toll, with the rate of sodium-related health problems rising steadily over the years. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, if we can lower our sodium intake to roughly 1,200 milligrams (mg) per day, it can save us about $24 billion in healthcare costs each year. Fortunately, there are ways that we can still decrease the amount of sodium intake without compromising taste and flavor.

What Does Sodium Do?

Sodium is a naturally occurring compound in most foods, and essential to our body in small doses. It is vital in muscle contraction, and the transmission of nerve impulses throughout the body so that information can be relayed to the brain. Along with potassium, sodium is essential in maintaining a healthy fluid balance within cells and throughout the body. Hence, small amounts of sodium and electrolytes can often be found in energy drinks for the purpose of balancing the fluids within the body.

The human body is effective in conserving enough sodium in our body so that naturally occurring salts in foods are more than enough to sustain us. Indeed, healthy individuals can function with just 200 mg of sodium, which is roughly one-tenth a teaspoon of salt, per day.

Ways To Decrease Excessive Sodium

Although a quick and effective solution to instantly boost flavor in bland foods, too much sodium intake can be extremely harmful to the body. In fact, most people today look for solutions to cut excessive sodium from their diets as industrialization makes it far too easy to overdose on too much salt. Here are some tips to decrease sodium:

  • Buy fresh produce: The best way to decrease sodium intake is to buy fresh produce, such as vegetables, fruits, raw grains and fresh meats. Usually, the fresher the food item, the more flavorful it will be, so the addition of salt would be unnecessary. Making your own meals from scratch is also a healthy and effective way to control sodium intake.
  • Use alternative methods for bold flavors: When cooking or building your meal when eating out, be sure to use other spices to increase the flavor instead of reaching for the salt shaker. For example, skip the salt and ask for flavored oil and vinegar in your deli sandwich. Substitute salt for paprika for a delicious popcorn topping, and a squeeze of citrus instead of sodium-laden dressing for salads. Rather than using salty ketchup on your burgers, swap it with mustard, which has lower sodium content and more flavor. Generally, herbs, spices and flavored oils can be great options to increase flavor and reduce salt when preparing dishes.
  • Scan labels: If buying fresh produce and cooking your own meals is not a viable option, it is best to seek low-sodium options by scanning food labels. You would be surprised at how much sodium certain foods contain! For example, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, white bread and deli ham are among a few of the highest sources of sodium in our everyday foods. Condiments, such as ketchup and soy sauce, are also hidden culprits behind high-sodium diets. Processed and packaged goods, such as instant noodles or canned soups, tend to have extremely high amounts of sodium to preserve their contents and retain flavor, so be sure to pay attention to the amount of sodium as well as the serving size.
  • Seek low-sodium options: When purchasing packaged and processed foods, always seek low-sodium alternatives and use other means to increase flavors. Restaurants tend to douse their meals with sodium for flavoring, so be sure to scan the menu for healthier alternatives. Fortunately, large chain restaurants and fast food chains are legally bound to disclose nutritional information to the public, so a few minutes of online research prior to a meal may successfully help slash sodium intake.

Side Effects: Too Much Or Too Little Sodium?

Too much sodium can lead to a myriad of health problems that pave the path for future deadly medical conditions. Sodium toxicity also hinders calcium absorption in the body. Some problems with too much sodium include, but are not limited to:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Heart failure and heart attacks
  • Damaged aorta
  • Kidney problems
  • Dehydration
  • Stomach cancer
  • Osteoporosis

While sodium deficiency can also be dangerous, it is extremely rare in the modern-day, American diet. Such cases are usually extreme athletes who drink too much water and had too much sodium flushed out of the system, individuals who went on constant juice diets with almost no sodium, or individuals with other pre-existing medical conditions. Instead, we should be focusing on ways to control and decrease our sodium intake to help prevent future deadly medical conditions that can cost us a fortune in healthcare, and even our lives.

Daily Dosage Recommendations

In healthy adults, daily sodium intake should be no more than 2,300 milligrams. For high risk individuals who already have sodium-induced health problems, the threshold is at a lower 1,500 milligrams. Since it is always harder to reduce salt intake after acquiring a taste for heavily salted foods, it is generally recommended to keep the daily sodium intake around 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams as a preventative measure.

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