Updated: May 30
The title of a recent research study grabbed my attention: "Is Too Much Sodium Harmful? Yes." That hard "yes" struck me as it's not often that you hear scientists so definitive about research, especially stated in the title.
Do you know the amount of sodium you consume in a day? While sodium may not be first on your radar when checking food labels (calories, sugar, and fat tend to top the list), it may be time to start checking sodium content as excess sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, gastric cancer, and certain types of dementia.
The average amount of sodium most Americans consume each day is 3,400 mg, mostly through processed foods. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top 10 sources of sodium in our diets include breads and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soups, burritos, tacos, savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, crackers), chicken, cheese, eggs, and omelets. (Notice that plant-based foods didn't make the list? ;)) The recommended amount of sodium is 2,300 mg a day (the amount in one teaspoon of salt) as part of a healthy diet, but 1,500 mg is more ideal, especially if you need to limit sodium for health reasons, like high blood pressure.
What is Salt?
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is about 40% sodium and 60% chloride. It flavors food, is used as a binder and stabilizer, and helps to preserve food. Sodium is a mineral that is essential for muscle and nerve function. Together with chloride, it also helps your body maintain proper water and mineral balance. The human body requires a small amount of sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals. While sodium is essential for vital body functions, too much can be harmful, both short and long term.
How Much Sodium is Needed?
I often get the question from those who are restricting sodium for medical reasons, "is it possible to get too little?" It is estimated that we do need about 500 mg of sodium daily for these vital functions. But, a majority of us can easily get that, plus much more, through the foods we eat throughout the day. Too little sodium may be seen with severe calorie restriction, malnutrition, or elite athletes who aren't supplementing with electrolytes during sweaty training sessions as excessive sodium loss can occur through sweating.
Risks of Too Much Sodium
Too much sodium, on the other hand, can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's Disease. It can also cause calcium losses, some of which may be pulled from bone, which may contribute to bone loss. Research studies have also linked too much sodium to stomach cancer. High sodium intake has even been linked to changes in a brain protein, called tau, causing the protein to clump together, which has been linked to certain types of dementia.
Short term, excess sodium may show up as fluid retention and bloating, increased thirst, headache, fatigue, or disruption in sleep. Long term, the kidneys may have trouble keeping up with consistent excess sodium in the blood. As sodium accumulates, the body holds onto water to dilute the sodium. This increases both the amount of fluid surrounding cells and the volume of blood in the bloodstream. The increased blood volume from excess sodium causes the heart to work harder and creates more pressure on the blood vessels, which, over time, can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Good News for Salty Lovers!
If you're a salty-lover, I have good news! Your taste buds change every 7–12 days. If you're used to eating salty foods, you're naturally going to crave salty foods. Once you start reducing your salt intake, it may be difficult at first, but give your taste buds a chance to enjoy the natural flavors of foods. They'll come around in less than two weeks and you may find yourself craving natural flavors rather than salty flavors. It's true! Try it for a week or two and let me know what happens in the comments below.
10 Natural (and Nutritious!) Salt-Free Flavor Boosters for Meals
In the meantime, you can add lots of flavor, as well as nutrition, by incorporating some of the flavor-enhancing tips below. Don't be surprised if you notice less fluid retention, more energy, better focus, and improved sleep as you reduce sodium intake and boost nutrition!
If you take medication for high blood pressure and dramatically reduce sodium intake, make sure to monitor your blood pressure closely as you make the changes and discuss the changes and your blood pressure readings with your healthcare provider.
1. Squeeze citrus, like lime, lemon, or orange, at the end of a meal to add some brightness and elevate the flavors. You'll also get a dose of vitamin C!
2. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on top of pasta, avocado toast, rice dishes, vegetables, and popcorn or add it to homemade sauces or salad dressings for a cheesy umami flavor (plus a boost in protein and B12, if it's fortified!).
3. Add plenty of spices. Spices can be added during cooking or at the end. If you like spicy, consider red pepper flakes or chipotle chili. If you don’t prefer spicy, consider smoked paprika, cinnamon, clove, and so much more. Just a little bit of spice goes a long way in terms of both flavor and nutrition.
4. "Pop" whole spices. This fun trick adds so much flavor to meals, as well as nutrition. Add whole seeds, like cumin, fennel, coriander, or mustard to a hot pan, before adding aromatics like onion and garlic. Adding a teaspoon or so (depending on the size of the dish) then cooking them on medium-high heat for a minute or two or until they start "popping" is a great way to release their flavor and healthy nutrients. Once they’re popped, proceed with your aromatics and the rest of the recipe. Watch them closely since they can burn easily!