North Americans eat too much salt. Food manufacturers add sodium to everything we eat, from pickles to pancake mix. Most North Americans consume between 1600 and 2300 mg of sodium per day just from commercially processed foods. They get another 1200 mg from the sodium that occurs naturally in food. They consume a further 1300 to 2500 mg from the salt they add to food in the kitchen or at the dinner table. That brings the total average daily consumption of sodium to somewhere between 4100 and 6000 mg. Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board recommends that healthy adults consume only 1100 to 3300 mg of sodium per day.
The Dangers of a High-Sodium Diet
The effect of excess sodium intake over a lifetime is strongly correlated with the development of high blood pressure. Approximately 9-20% of the population will get high blood pressure if their sodium intake is too high. High blood pressure has three side effects: strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure.
Among the Kalahari bushmen of South Africa or the Melanesian tribes of New Guinea, sodium intake is low (200 to 1400 mg per day) and high blood pressure is virtually non-existent. In these primitive societies, unlike our own, blood pressure does not tend to increase with advancing age. However, when primitive societies adopt more modern ways of living, including increasing their intake of sodium, high blood pressure problems become much more prevalent. In northern Japan, the average sodium intake is astronomical – 9200 mg per day. Predictably, high blood pressure is a major problem.
In a study at the Mayo clinic, patients with high blood pressure reduced their intake of sodium to no more than 2000 mg each day. Patients with mild to moderate conditions of high blood pressure showed a significant reduction in blood pressure. (The results were not significant for patients with severe blood pressure.)
Many other clinical trials have supported these findings. It is increasingly apparent that excess sodium intake can spell trouble from some people.
Excess sodium can also lead to water retention and bloating. Because sodium binds water, it tends to interfere with the body's ability to properly regulate water balance.
As if all this is not enough reason for cutting back on your salt intake, excess sodium is mildly toxic and caustic to body tissues. Therefore, it is strongly linked to the development of stomach cancer as well.
Cutting Back on Sodium
Our distant ancestors are partly to blame for our high sodium intake. They had a difficult time consuming enough sodium to sustain life. Over the generations, our bodies compensated by evolving a very elaborate hormonal system to prevent sodium from leaving the body. The kidneys work as sodium retainers. They filter undesirable components from the blood and into the urine, but they hold the sodium and return it to the blood stream after filtering. Thus, your body does not get rid of excess sodium easily, and its negative effects tend to accumulate with time. The only effective strategy for avoiding the dangers of excess sodium is to drink plenty of water, eat plenty of diuretic foods, and decrease your intake of sodium.
Even though prepared foods and fast foods already contain a lot of sodium, one-fourth to one-third of your daily sodium intake is discretionary. You can control whether or not you eat it. If you cut down or eliminate the salt you add to food and cut back on high-sodium processed foods and beverages, you can keep your sodium intake within safe boundaries.
If you are accustomed to a lot of sodium in your food, you may find that unsalted foods taste a little flat. Don't worry; soon the nerve endings on your tongue will begin to transmit new and interesting tastes to your brain and the real flavors of the food will begin to emerge. Your taste buds will reawaken and, eventually, you'll find you no longer like salty foods. (At least, that's what most people report).
If you find it difficult to give up the taste of salt on your food, you might use salt substitute instead. Most of these contain potassium in place of sodium. If you suffer from any form of kidney trouble, check with your doctor to make sure that additional potassium will not harm you.
Some Sodium Facts
Table salt (sodium chloride) is 40% sodium by weight.
One teaspoon of salt contains 2000 mg of sodium.
One cup of canned or packaged soup usually contains approximately 900 mg of sodium.
One dill pickle contains about 1000 mg of sodium
Baking soda, baking powder, meat sauces, gravies, and mixes are loaded with sodium.
MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer found in many Chinese foods is also loaded with sodium.
Prepared condiments, including relish, catsup, pickles, mustards, soya sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and olives are often very high in sodium.
Most soft drinks, such as diet cola and soda water, contain less than 20 mg of sodium per cup.
Sodium chloride, sodium saccharin, sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate are all common sodium additives.
All fresh fruits and vegetables contain more potassium than sodium.
Potassium is a diuretic and helps the body excrete excess sodium.
Foods that contain:
Less than 25 mg of sodium
12 oz. soda water
12 oz. diet soft drink
Less than 75 mg of sodium
3 oz. chicken
3 oz. turkey
3 oz. fresh fish
3 oz. canned tuna or salmon (low sodium, water-packed)
Less than 120mg of sodium
1 cup low-fat milk
1 cup low-fat yogurt
½ cup cottage cheese
¼ cup shellfish
3 oz. shrimp
¾ cup lobster
¾ cup oysters
2 oz. clams
1 slice bread
3 low-fat crackers
Less than 240 mg of sodium
1 oz. of most low-fat cheeses
½ cup of tomato juice
2 tsp. of prepared Italian dressing
1 cup of most breakfast cereals
Less than 360 mg of sodium
1 oz. turkey or chicken breast
Less than 1000 mg of sodium
2 tsp. Baking powder
1 bouillon cut
1 dill pickle
½ tsps. table salt
1 cup of canned or packaged soups
The Winning Weigh. Mescino and Simon, 1993. Elite Publishing, Toronto.
Castenmiller J. et al. The effect of dietary sodium on urinary calcium and potassium in normotensive men with different calcium intakes: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 41: Jan 1985, 52-60.
Kromhout D., Bosschieter E., Coulander C. Potassium, calcium, alcohol intake and blood pressure: The Zutphen study: Asmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition 41: June 1985; 1299-1304.
Dietary factors and blood pressure; Dietary Council Digest, vol. 52, No. 5, Sept. – Oct 1981, ISSN 00II-5568.
Rabkin S. Predicting and preventing hypertension and associated cardiovascular disease: hypertension detection and management – proceedings of a symposium sponsored by College of Family Physiscians of Canada, University of Calgary, Oct 22-23, 1984; 45-49.