The human body needs a very small amount of sodium – the primary element we get from salt – to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals. But too much sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Reducing your sodium intake can help lower your blood pressure and improve the health of your heart. This is especially important for people who are prone to high blood pressure in the first place.
Where Does Dietary Sodium Come From?
Although many people are quick to blame the salt shaker, only a small amount of dietary sodium is on the stove or on the table. An overwhelming majority of sodium consumed—more than 75 percent—comes from restaurant, prepackaged, and processed foods, including many products that don’t even taste salty. For consumers to make informed decisions about what they eat, it’s helpful to understand the role that sodium plays in different foods.
Is All of This Sodium Necessary?
Usually, no. First of all, salt is an acquired taste. While some people don’t like the taste of low sodium alternatives to processed foods, studies show that you can lower your salt tolerance and that the food will taste just as good once your body becomes accustomed to a lower sodium diet. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the average slice of pizza in the United Kingdom contains just 320 mg of sodium, while the average in the U.S. is 610 mg per serving. Americans have been hooked on high sodium food by consuming it.
How Much is Too Much?
The American Heart Association recommends people aim to eat no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. On average, Americans eat more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day.
Where Does It Come From?
In general, the biggest contributors to high salt intake are snack foods, canned foods, and frozen foods. In particular, most chips, soups, and frozen meat products contain elevated sodium levels. Breads and cereals, which don’t taste salty, also contain significant levels of salt. Read the labels on the foods you eat. Pay attention to the portions the label is using to measure salt levels–often the portion sizes are quite small and create the impression that you’re eating less sodium than you think you are.
What Specific Foods Should I Watch Out For?
The Centers for Disease Control has a list of six popular foods with high sodium content dubbed the “Salty Six”:
- Breads and rolls – each piece can have up to 230 mg of sodium
- Pizza – one slice can have up to 760 mg of sodium
- Cold cuts and cured meats – Two slices of bologna have 578 mg of sodium
- Poultry – especially chicken nuggets. Just 3 ounces have nearly 600 mg of sodium
- Canned soups – one cup of canned chicken noodle soup can have up to 940 mg of sodium
- Sandwiches – consider the bread, cured meats, processed cheese, and condiments, and sandwiches can easily surpass 1,500 mg of sodium