Sodium is one of the most misunderstood nutrients in your diet. It can get a bad rap because eating excess sodium is associated with increased disease risk and even early death. (Yikes.)
But the right amount of sodium is absolutely essential for your health and does so much for your bod. FYI: There’s a big diff between the sodium naturally found in foods like seafood and vegetables and the salt added to foods like chips and takeout food.
Get the DL on what sodium is, how it’s different from added salt, and how it impacts your health.
What is sodium?
Sodium is an important nutrient that your bod needs to stay alive. It’s the major cation (positively charged particle) of the fluid that exists outside your cells.
It’s necessary for many important processes, including:
blood pressure regulation
- nerve transmission
- fluid balance maintenance
- normal cell functioning
Your body regulates sodium super strictly. For example, if your sodium levels get low, your body sends a signal to your kidneys to absorb more sodium and excrete potassium. (Potassium is another nutrient that’s critical for fluid balance.)
If your sodium levels get too high, your bod lets your kidneys know it’s time to get rid of more sodium.
How much sodium is normal?
A normal blood sodium level lies between 135 and 145 milliequivalent per liter (mEq/L).
A low sodium level (aka hyponatremia) is when sodium levels fall below 135 mEq/L. Hyponatremia may be caused by things like medical conditions, uncontrolled vomiting, diuretic medication, and high blood sugar.
When blood sodium is above 145 mEq/L, it qualifies as a high sodium level (aka hypernatremia). It’s primarily seen in elderly people and newborns. It can be caused by not getting enough water or too much fluid loss (typically through sweating, peeing a lot, or vomiting).
Sodium vs. salt
Although sodium and salt are used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing.
Sodium is naturally present in low amounts in some foods like milk, meat, fish, and vegetables. Table salt (the stuff you use to flavor your food) is made up of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride.
Salt is used to give food flavor and also to help preserve shelf life. Extra salt gets added to food in two ways. It could be added during manufacturing (think chips, cured meats, frozen dinners, and salad dressings) or during food prep.
Getting too much sodium from the foods that naturally contain it isn’t a problem for most people. Eating too much added salt, however, is a common issue.
Why’s that a big deal for your health? Consuming too much salt might increase your risk for a number of medical conditions.
Foods high in sodium
Generally speaking, added salt can become problematic if you eat too much. (Remember, this isn’t the same thing as the sodium naturally found in foods like meat and dairy.)
Sometimes all of that added salt can hide in unexpected places. Here are some of the largest contributors to salt intake in the United States:
- deli meat
- canned soups
- savory snack foods (like chips, pretzels, and crackers)
- boxed pasta dishes (like macaroni and cheese)
- ready-to-eat meals (like tv dinners)
- salty condiments (like salad dressings and soy sauce)
Highly processed packaged foods make up 70 percent of total sodium intake in American diets. That’s why eating diet rich in whole foods and low in processed foods is the best way to control sodium intake.
How much sodium is too much?
So, how much sodium should you be eating anyway?
Although there’s some debate over how much sodium people should get, major health organizations recommend staying below 2,300 milligrams per day.
These recommendations are even lower (about 1,500 milligrams per day) for peeps with medical conditions like hypertension.
Most people consume much more sodium than that, though. The average American gets 3,600 milligrams of sodium per day.
It’s important to note, though, that some health experts disagree with current sodium guidelines. They argue that these recommendations are too restrictive and unnecessary, especially for folks with normal blood pressure.
Reading food labels
Wondering how to find out how much sodium you’re getting? The nutrition facts label will list the total amount of sodium in each product. This is shown per serving both as value in milligrams and as a percent of your Daily Value (DV).
Currently, the DV for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams per day. This means that total sodium intake should be kept below 2,300 milligrams on a daily basis.
Foods containing 5 percent DV or less of sodium per serving are considered low in sodium while foods containing 20 percent DV or more of sodium per serving are considered high in sodium.
Here are some sodium-related claims you might see on food packaging and what they mean:
|Salt/sodium-free||less than 5 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving|
|Very low sodium||35 mg of sodium or less per serving|
|Low sodium||140 mg of sodium or less per serving|
|Light in sodium or lightly salted||at least 50% less sodium than the regular product|
|No-salt-added or unsalted||no salt is added during processing, but these products may not be salt/sodium-free unless stated|
Sodium and your health
However, this is a controversial subject in the scientific community. Some experts argue that salt sensitivity depends on the individual and that high salt diets are more harmful for some people than others.
Research has linked high salt diets with the following health conditions:
High blood pressure. Studies suggest that peeps following higher salt diets tend to have higher blood pressure. That’s a risk factor for heart disease.
Heart disease and stroke. Lower salt diets may protect against heart disease and stroke.
Kidney disease. High salt diets may negatively impact kidney function.
Autoimmune disease. Research suggests that high salt diets may be a risk factor for developing autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Certain cancers. High salt intake has been associated with certain cancers like stomach cancer.
Keep in mind that research on how salt impacts health is ongoing. The relationship between salt intake and disease risk is not completely understood.
Plus, it’s important to understand that your diet as a whole is what matters most when it comes to your health.
Occasionally enjoying foods that are higher in salt prob isn’t going to hurt your health as long as you’re following a nutritious and balanced diet.
How to eat less sodium
If you think you’re eating too much sodium, you may want to cut back on salt. Luckily, there are tons of easy and delicious ways to cut your salt intake without sacrificing on flavor.
Here are some tips that may help you eat less salt:
Use natural salt alternatives. Try adding lemon juice, fresh or dried herbs, garlic, onion, or red pepper flakes to your food for a pop of flavor.
Cut back on fast food. Fast food is typically loaded with salt. Plus, consuming fast food too often isn’t good for overall health.
Cook more meals at home. If you regularly rely on takeout, delivery, or restaurants to fill your belly, you could be getting way too much salt. Try cooking more meals at home to cut back on salt and save a bit of cash.
Eat more fruits and vegetables. Filling your diet with more fruits and vegetables can reduce your intake of added salt. They can also flood your bod with important nutrients that are important for blood pressure regulation like potassium and magnesium.
Read labels. Reading nutrition labels can help you figure out how much sodium is in a given product. The CDC recommends looking for meals that contain less than 600 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Eat less packaged foods. Unlike ultra processed packaged foods, whole foods like fruits and veggies don’t contain any added salt. Make a point to increase your intake of whole foods and cut back on ready-made meals and highly processed packaged foods.
Buy “No Salt Added” canned goods. Canned goods, even veggies, can be high in salt. Look for canned goods that don’t contain added salt. You can also rinse canned goods like beans to reduce sodium levels.
In addition to trying out some of the tips listed above, remember to follow an overall healthy, well-balanced diet. Don’t freak out if you find out your fave snack food is a salt bomb.
Just make a point to eat salt-rich foods less frequently and to eat naturally salt-free foods (like veggies and fruits) more often.
If you have a medical condition like high blood pressure, heart disease, or kidney disease, chat with your doctor about your salt intake.
Depending on your overall health, your doctor can help you come up with a plan that works best for your specific needs.
Salt makes food taste great, but overindulging in super processed foods or adding too much salt to your food isn’t great for health.
Try to be mindful of your salt intake by making a point to cut back on foods like chips, frozen pizza, and boxed mac and cheese and replace them with whole foods like veggies and fruits.