According to guidelines from the CDC, the American Heart Association, and other health organizations, it seems that we all need to limit the sodium in our diets. A new study from England confirmed that, finding that lower salt consumption led to fewer stroke and heart attack deaths. At the same time, however, researchers in Denmark reported that only extremely high sodium intake is related with increased fatalities and went as far as to suggest that taking in 5,000 milligrams (twice the recommended amount) can be healthy. And last year Institute of Medicine implied that existing studies do not support a reduction in sodium for most people. So do you really need to shake your salt habit? Here’s how to figure out how much is a healthy amount for you.
Know Your Risk
“Some sodium is essential for the body to control your blood pressure,” says Angela Ginn, R.D.N., a food and nutrition expert in Baltimore. “But high amounts can raise it too much and put you at a major risk for cardiovascular disease — which is the leading cause of death worldwide.” Certain factors can make you more susceptible to heart disease. If you’re older than 50, African-American, or have a history of hypertension or diabetes, your risk goes up. Consult your doctor to determine a healthy range of sodium for you. According to current recommendations, the average healthy person should limit their total daily intake to 2,300 mg (about a teaspoon of salt), and those with high blood pressure are generally recommended to restrict their amount to 1,500 mg per day.
Most people get only about 5 percent of their sodium from table salt
On the flip side, if you’re a competitive athlete or sweat excessively through frequent endurance workouts, you might need to counteract that sodium loss with salt tablets. Losing too much salt through sweat and hydrating with only water can put you at risk for heat cramps or hyponatremia, a low concentration of sodium in the blood that can be fatal in extreme cases.
See the Signs
Think you don’t need to pay attention to your salt intake? Keep in mind that the average person consumes 3,400 mg of sodium a day, which is significantly higher than suggested. If you’ve gained weight recently, sodium could be the culprit — high levels can make you retain more water. Salt could also be to blame if you often feel dizzy, disoriented, or like you’re having heart palpitations, as these symptoms tend to come with high blood pressure.
Also be aware of your potassium intake, suggests Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., a registered dietitian and food scientist in Washington, DC. This nutrient helps balance the sodium in your diet and assists with regulating blood pressure. In fact, a recent study found that consuming twice as much potassium as sodium can cut your risk of fatality from heart disease in half.
Track Your Salt Intake
Look at the sodium listed on nutrition labels and consider that you might be eating more than one serving. A nutritionist can also help you calculate your consumption with a food diary, and can pinpoint your top sources of sodium. (Seeing one is especially important if you have diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease, says Dubost.) The biggest sources aren’t always what you expect. For instance, if you’ve decided to reduce your sodium intake, just stepping away from the salt shaker probably isn’t going to cut it.
“Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t the largest contribution of salt in your diet,” says Dubost. “In fact, most people get only about 5 percent of their sodium from table salt.” The average person, she says, gets a third of their sodium from restaurant meals and 40 to 45 percent of their intake from processed foods. Keep that in mind next time you’re out to dinner or grocery shopping.
Make Healthy Sodium Choices
Start by seasoning your food at home with a variety of spices instead of table salt, suggests Ginn, such as oregano, thyme, cumin or paprika. When grocery shopping, stock up on fresh produce and opt for low-sodium canned items and snacks. “If you’re using canned vegetables, simply rinsing them off washes away 40 percent of the sodium,” says Ginn. Aside from obvious packaged-food offenders like salty chips and canned soup, watch out for sneaky sources like breads made with yeast and meats that have salt added to help with preservation, such as cold cuts.
Eating out? “Many chains have nutrition info on their menu, website or available from your server if you ask,” says Dubost. “Choose low-sodium options, and request that the cook not add salt to your dish.”
Even if you don’t think you’re consuming excessive levels of salt, paying a little extra attention to your body, the way you feel, and how you cook and eat can ensure you’re taking in a healthy amount.