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How to Cut Down on Sodium Intake

DrSugar: How Much Salt Is Too Much?

DrSugar is in the house! And she's answering your health-related questions.

Dear DrSugar,
I am a vegetarian and when I first started cutting meat out of my diet I still craved it. I ate a lot of "fake meat" products, which I understand are highly processed. I will still eat Morningstar and Quorn products on occasion, but rarely. How bad are these products for you? I noticed that they have a lot of salt in them. What does all this salt do to you exactly? Also, how much salt per day is OK? When I search for daily salt intake, nobody can really give me a clear answer. Thank you!
— Salty Gal

Thank you for your great question, as I too worry about my daily consumption of salt given the fact that my nutrition seems to come second sometimes to daily patient care. One of the major life lessons I learned in medical school is that physicians should "eat when you can and sleep when you can" and I must say that I often find myself just grabbing whatever is quickest in the hospital cafeteria in the short period of time I have between patient care duties. Unfortunately, this does not lead to eating the most well-balanced, healthy, and lower sodium diet. So, I am very glad you asked this question regarding salt intake and if you want to learn more, please keep reading!

Sodium (the main component of salt) can come from natural sources or be added to foods. Most foods in their natural state contain some amount of sodium. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, the majority of sodium that Americans consume (77 percent) is sodium added to processed foods. Some of this sodium is added to processed foods for safety reasons, but most of it is added for taste and is in excess of what is needed for safety.

Your body does need some salt to carry out certain functions, like maintaining the right balance of fluids, helping transmit nerve impulses, and helping with contraction and relaxation of muscles. Your kidneys normally balance the sodium concentrations: if your body does not have enough sodium, it holds on to more and if your body has an excess of sodium, the kidneys excrete the excess in the urine. However, if your kidneys cannot excrete enough sodium, the sodium accumulates in the blood. Then, because sodium holds onto water, your blood volume increases. This can increase your blood pressure and makes your heart work harder to pump the blood through your blood vessels.

In terms of daily limits for the intake of sodium, the Mayo Clinic reports that the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends to not exceed 2,300 mg of sodium a day if you are a healthy adult. They recommend no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day if you already have high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, are African-American, or if you are middle-aged or older. The American Heart Association's recommendations are slightly different, but they also recommend keeping daily sodium intake around 1,500mg per day, however they recognize the difficulty for most Americans to achieve this goal. If you are a healthy young adult, it may be prudent to keep your daily sodium intake somewhere between these two goal numbers of 1,500 and 2,300 mg. However, you should speak to your primary care doctor if you have serious concern over the daily amount you should consume, especially if you have a family history of high blood pressure, kidney disease, or heart disease.

Whether or not vegetarian "meat-alternatives" are healthy or not because they are processed and have high sodium content, I think that it’s fine to have them in your diet if you rarely consume them and eat them in moderation. However, you can be a savvy shopper and learn to read the nutrition labels in order to locate ingredients that are salt containing, but have other names. The Mayo Clinic states that you should read labels to look out for these salt-containing compounds: monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, and sodium nitrate/nitrite. With these tips from the Mayo Clinic and the American Heart Association, you can cut down on your intake of sodium: eat more fresh foods and less processed foods, opt for low-sodium products, remove salt from recipes whenever possible, limit the use of condiments high in sodium, and use herbs/spices/other flavorings to enhance the taste of foods.

Have a question for DrSugar? You can send it to me via private message here, and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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