Sodium is a mineral that occurs naturally in some foods – but most of the time, it gets added to our diets through processed items and an enthusiastic overuse of the salt shaker. However, while sodium can seem ‘bad,’ it’s an essential nutrient that keeps our bodies functioning properly, says Katie Eliot, Ph.D., RDN, an associate professor with the OU College of Allied Health at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
“We need sodium from our diets to maintain water and electrolyte balance throughout the body,” says Eliot. “Sodium also helps with important functions like nerve impulses and muscle contractions.”
She says that while the body technically only needs approximately 500mg of sodium to work effectively, the recommended daily range for most adults is between 1,200-2,300mg. However, the American Heart Association reports that Americans consume an average of 3,400mg per day.
“Much of our dietary sodium comes from processed and prepared foods,” says Eliot. “While one teaspoon of table salt contains an entire day’s worth of sodium, packaged foods and restaurant meals can contain up to twice that amount.”
Some of the harmful effects of having high sodium include high blood pressure, and risk of heart failure and stroke.
“If a high sodium intake leads to high blood pressure, this can put extra stress on the heart, which, over time, can lead to heart problems,” she says. “Some people are more sensitive to salt than others, so they will see a greater decrease in blood pressure when cutting back on sodium. This is a great reason to work with a registered dietitian to find out how much sodium you’re eating, and if cutting back would help your health.”
While the majority of people intake more sodium than needed, there are those who are also at risk for having too little sodium in their diets.
“Older adults and individuals taking certain medications are at risk for low blood sodium. This does not necessarily mean they need to increase their salt intake, but they should check with their doctor or dietitian if they are concerned,” says Eliot. “Athletes who exercise for more than an hour at a time – especially if it is in a warm climate – need to be careful to replace sodium that is lost during exercise to avoid dangerously low blood sodium levels.”
If you’re looking for ways to reduce sodium in your diet, Eliot says instead of focusing just on limiting sodium, think about increasing your fruit and vegetable intake.
“Fresh or frozen versions of these foods are naturally lower in sodium and provide a critical nutrient, potassium, which is good for heart health, and often low in diets that are high in processed foods,” she says. “Use the percentage daily value on a label – if one serving of a food has greater than 20% of the daily value, it is a high sodium food. You can teach your taste buds to like less salty foods, but give it some time. Try gradually decreasing salt intake to help you stick to a lower sodium diet long-term.”