by Sharon Palmer, R.D.
Trim the amount of salt in your diet to lower your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension.) That's been the health advice for years, but most people don't heed it. "Our bodies require just a tiny amount of sodium -- 500 milligrams (mg) a day, or the quantity found in ¼ teaspoon of salt. And yet the average American consumes eight times this minimum amount," says
Unhealthy blood pressure levels cause an estimated 62 percent of all strokes and 49 percent of all cases of heart disease. And one-third of our population has pre-hypertension, an early form of the disease, which puts you at risk for heart attacks and stroke. High sodium intake goes beyond just raising your risk for hypertension, heart disease and stroke, however. New evidence shows that salt can damage your arteries, bones, kidneys, blood and even your stomach, both dependent or independent of high blood pressure, reports Brill.
How low should you go?
A report issued in
This announcement sparked major controversy among many public health experts, who supported lower sodium levels for at-risk individuals. And the worst-case scenario arose when newspaper headlines across the country announced that cutting back on salt is no longer needed. However, it's important to remember that most Americans far exceed the 2,300 mg sodium target, putting themselves at risk for disease. At the very minimum, you should keep your sodium intake under this level as your best bet for optimal health.
Put sodium in its place
Keeping your sodium intake below 2,300 mg per day may be easier said than done, however, considering the enormous amounts of sodium found in some foods; many prepared soups, entrees and side dishes in the supermarket contain at least 1,000 mg per serving, and restaurant meals can provide more than 5,000 mg. In fact, processed and prepared foods account for 77 percent of the sodium in our diets; only 10 percent of our average sodium intake comes from naturally occurring salt in foods, and only five to 10 percent from the salt shaker.
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to sodium levels in foods. "People need to beware of relying too much on their taste buds to detect the sodium. There are plenty of foods with unacceptable levels of sodium that do not necessarily taste salty," says Brill, who adds that a large shake at
There's only one way to really know for sure how much sodium is found in your favorite foods. Check the nutrition facts label on all products before you drop them into your shopping cart. The Percent Daily Value ( percentDV) for sodium, based on 100 percent of the recommended amount of sodium for the day, is a good guide for keeping your sodium in check. If a product contains 5 percent DV or less for sodium, it's considered a low sodium product; 20 percent DV or higher means it's a high sodium food. If most of your foods are low-sodium selections--good job!--you're on your way to meeting your sodium target.
Where's the sodium hiding?
Top sources of sodium in the diet
The following foods account for 40 percent of all the sodium Americans eat each day, according to the
-- Breads and rolls
-- Cold cuts and cured meats
-- Pasta dishes
-- Meat dishes
Slash the salt
Follow these tips to lower your sodium intake:
-- Cook at home more often, instead of relying on restaurant and drive-thru meals
-- Focus on whole, minimally processed foods, such as whole grains, fuits, vegetables, lean meats, fish and chicken, legumes and dairy products
-- Don't automatically add salt. Taste your recipes before you add the salt, adding just a pinch if it needs it.
-- Flavor foods with herbs and spices to allow for less salt in cooking
-- Enhance flavors with garlic, lemon and vinegar -- ingredients that can allow the natural flavors of foods to shine without added salt
-- Watch out for condiments. Food accompaniments like soy sauce, mustard and barbecue sauce push up the salt in your meals.
-- Keep your portion size in check. If you eat double -- or even triple -- the serving size of foods, you're pushing your sodium intake way up.
-- Compare product sodium levels. Many products, such as soup and pasta sauce, can have dramatic differences in sodium levels from brand to brand. Compare products before you make your final decision.