Taken with a Grain of Salt

High levels of sodium can be found in processed food and condiments, says Sharon Martin, R.D.

A sprinkle here, a dash there—a little salt can go a long way toward enhancing the flavor of our food. Salt, or sodium, is also an important mineral that is essential for life, according to Sharon Martin, clinical dietitian for NorthBay Healthcare.

“Salt helps control our body’s fluid balance,” she explains.

But too much salt in our diet upsets that delicate balance, and that can wreak havoc on our system.

“When we eat too much salt, we’re at risk of developing hypertension, or cardiovascular or kidney disease. And for those who already have these conditions, it’s very important to limit salt intake to prevent further progression of the disease.”

For example, excess sodium intake for someone with congestive heart failure will result in edema, she says. Edema is swelling due to excess water retention, which makes the workload of the heart even greater.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can result in a stroke, which may severely impact someone’s ability to function on a daily basis. Excess sodium in kidney disease further damages the kidneys and can hasten the need for dialysis.

How much is too much?

Too much salt is a surprisingly small amount. One teaspoon of table salt is equal to 2,300 mg, and The Institute of Medicine has set the adequate intake from 1,000 mg to 1,500 mg per day, depending on age.

People older than age 50, or with African American heritage should eat even less than 1,500 mg per day, Sharon adds.

Most of the sodium we consume every day doesn’t come from the shaker on the table. It comes from processed foods—in cans, bags and boxes—in bakery goods, or in fast food and restaurant meals.

For example, if you’re trying to stay within a 1,500 mg per day limit, you could consume half of it with a frozen TV dinner. Other foods with surprisingly high sodium levels include deli meats, soup, condiments such as soy sauce or catsup, vegetable juice cocktail and even canned jalapeños. Stay away from anything that has been pickled, cured or brined, she suggests, and aim for food items that have 140 mg or less per serving.

Don’t forget to check labels on over-the-counter medications, she adds, as some may also contain sodium.

What are patients most afraid of if they’ve been told to go on a low-salt diet? “They fear that they won’t feel satisfied,” Sharon says. “It’s a big change for people to reduce their sodium if they have been eating a lot of processed or prepared foods, but it becomes easier after about two weeks.

“Rather than thinking about what we can’t eat, I like to suggest that patients include more whole foods in their diet: fresh fruits and vegetables, dishes made from scratch using fresh ingredients seasoned with herbs rather than salt. It also helps to reach for fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible, and try to shop at local farmers’ markets and vegetable stands.”

Cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables might take a little more planning, but it is worth it, Sharon says.

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