Shaking the Sodium Habit

June 10, 2014 Providence Health Team

If your blood pressure is on the rise, you may find your doctor telling you to cut back on sodium.

Sodium is a mineral that the body needs to maintain proper fluid balance and to keep nerves and muscles working properly. Although the most common form is sodium chloride or table salt, the element also occurs naturally in most foods, including milk, beets, celery and even drinking water.

Sodium is added to processed foods in the form of monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate, sodium saccharin, baking soda and sodium benzoate. Most Americans, as a result, get two to four times more sodium than is recommended for good health.

In salt-sensitive individuals, sodium tends to keep excess fluids in the body, increasing blood pressure and putting an additional burden on the heart. High blood pressure is a major health problem, contributing to strokes, kidney failure, congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation. And at least a third of hypertension cases can be attributed in large part to a high-sodium diet.

Sodium: How Much is Healthy?

A healthy level, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is less than 2,300 milligrams a day. Persons with high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and anyone who is over age 50 or African-American, should limit themselves to 1500 milligrams a day.

A teaspoon of table salt has 2,324 milligrams of sodium. But hiding the salt shaker won’t necessarily bring your sodium level down.

When you buy your food from a restaurant, fast food outlet, deli counter or grocery store, you are swimming in a sea of sodium. About 77 percent of an average American’s sodium intake comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

How To Cut Back On Sodium

Cutting back on sodium intake is crucial. In addition the increased risk of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure, a high sodium diet is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease.

If you’re accustomed to salting your food before you even taste it, you have a habit that needs to be adjusted. Actually, salt is habit-forming: the more you eat, the more you want. If you make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of salt you use for cooking and at the table, you will soon find that you need less. It is a wonderful chance to explore other spices and herbs that have a ton of flavor without the added salt too!

Pepperoni, corned beef and olives taste salty, but many foods with high sodium content do not. Each slice of whole grain bread, for example, comes with about 300 milligrams of sodium. That’s 600 in a sandwich, not even counting the amount you’re getting in deli meat or cheese.

You may be used to checking labels for saturated and trans fats, but don’t forget to check the sodium content. Avoid foods that contain more than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Focusing on fresh, local foods you buy and prepare yourself can help cut down on your sodium intake as long as you add very little sodium during preparation. Foods you prepare yourself are also more likely to have higher levels of potassium, magnesium, calcium and other important nutrients.

What’s more important for maintaining normal blood pressure, many experts believe, is the ratio of sodium to potassium. The ideal is at least a 1:2 ratio whereas the actual ratio in the American diet is more like 2:1. Potassium is found in vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Shaking the sodium habit means more than cutting back on salt. It means a positive approach to eating for good health. Next time you meet with your primary care provider, talk about your diet and simple ways you can make changes to improve your health.

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