Dietitians Dish: Lower salt intake for better health

Stephanie Markman

Sodium, which is mainly found in salt, is essential to maintain fluid balance in our bodies and plays an important role in muscle contractions and nerve transmission. However, when too much sodium is consumed, many negative events may ensue.

High sodium intake in most people increases blood pressure which nearly doubles one's risk for heart attack, stroke and heart failure. Excessive sodium consumption causes your bones to excrete calcium which causes accelerated bone loss and fractures. Finally, high sodium intake can also contribute to long-term memory loss.

Research over the past 30 years has shown that a daily intake of 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more is associated with high blood pressure. Did you know that only one teaspoon of salt equals 2,325 milligrams of sodium? This helps explain why 95 percent of North Americans exceed the heart healthy amount of sodium.

The average American consumes 3,300 milligrams of sodium a day and 75 percent of that comes from processed and fast foods. For example two slices of pepperoni pizza contains 1,045 milligrams of sodium, one cup of chicken noodle soup has 1,106 milligrams and one half of a cup of canned green beans contains 390 milligrams.

It is important to realize how quickly our sodium intake can add up throughout the day which puts us at risk for developing high blood pressure and therefore other cardiovascular problems.

The best way to decrease sodium intake is to avoid salt whenever possible. There are the obvious ways such as keeping the salt shaker off the table and using as little salt as possible when cooking. Start using herbs and spices for flavor which are all sodium free. Beware that eating out can be tricky when limiting sodium intake, it is almost guaranteed that you will be getting a highly salted meal.

For example, a fast food double cheeseburger contains 1,150 milligrams of sodium, which is half of the daily recommended amount. Not to mention a side of medium fries contains 270 milligrams, but then if you add more salt and some ketchup, you may be close to 2,000 milligrams with lunch alone.

When eating out, look for lightly salted dishes and simply cut portion sizes, which will help decrease sodium intake.

When buying canned foods, you can count on them being high in sodium, but an easy way to get rid of most of that salt is to rinse the vegetables and beans before using them. Beware of any processed or packaged foods, even if it's a sweet pastry, it can still be high in sodium.

Pay special attention to the nutrition facts label and keep meals close to 600 milligrams of sodium or less. Snacks and side dishes should be 200 milligrams or less per serving. Research shows that decreasing sodium intake by only 400 milligrams a day could eliminate 1.5 million cases of high blood pressure.

Though high salt intake (greater than 2,300 milligrams per day) is a major risk factor in the development of high blood pressure, keep in mind that being obese, inactive and excessive alcohol intake (two or more servings per day for men and one or more servings per day for women) are also risk factors for developing high blood pressure. So, go easy on the salt shaker and start adopting other heart-healthy behaviors during American Heart Month, it could save your life.

Stephanie Markman is a registered and licensed dietitian. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.