Is Sodium Really That Bad For You?
Sodium is one of those nutrients that everyone is talking about.
Some sources say to avoid it as much as possible while others say not to worry about it.
As usual in the nutrition world, defining a nutrient as “good” or “bad,” or better yet, “healthy” or “unhealthy,” isn’t so black and white.
Sodium is a naturally occurring micronutrient, and it’s not the same thing as salt.
It’s important to point out that sodium and salt are not the same thing, despite the fact that they’re often used interchangeably. Sodium is a mineral and a naturally occurring micronutrient. Salt is formed from the combination of sodium and chloride. Its scientific name is sodium chloride (NaCl).
Sodium is a natural component of many foods, but it’s also added to processed foods to make them taste better or prolong shelf life. Most of the sodium we consume is in the form of NaCl, primarily from table salt. So we can’t demonize sodium altogether, especially because there are different forms that have different properties.
Sodium is a crucial nutrient that our bodies can’t create, which is why we have to get it from food.
We cannot live without sodium. It’s an essential mineral, meaning our bodies cannot make it so we need to get it from food. Sodium plays a key role in how our body functions. It acts as an electrolyte and helps us maintain proper fluid balance, aids in nerve conduction, and assists with muscle function. Most of our body’s sodium is in our blood and the fluid around our cells.
Nutrients that occur naturally in foods are not inherently bad. They are there for a reason! This important mineral is found in nourishing foods like beets, celery, carrots, seaweed, spinach, meat, and fish. Plus, sodium that’s present naturally in foods occurs alongside other minerals like potassium and calcium, which help support overall mineral balance.
Sodium is essential for recovery — it helps athletes avoid dehydration and muscle cramps.
Sodium is especially important for for athletes because it protects the body from dehydration due to fluid loss, and it supports proper muscle contractions. Loss of sodium and other electrolytes through sweat can cause muscle cramps, while severe loss of sodium can lead to hyponatremia, resulting in symptoms like headaches, fatigue, confusion, and nausea. When coupled with proper hydration, sodium helps athletes perform and recover their best.
Consuming too much salt or added sodium can lead to serious health issues.
The naturally-occurring mineral sodium is not our biggest cause of concern — especially when paired with proper hydration and varied mineral intake. Salt and added sodium, on the other hand can be dangerous.
Chances are, if you’ve been warned about salt, it’s because of its effects on blood pressure and therefore, heart health. High levels of salt in the body cause the kidneys to retain water, leading to bloating and increased blood volume. A domino effect occurs from there: high blood volume puts pressure on blood vessels. These vessels become stiffer and more narrow as a result, in turn forcing our hearts to work harder to pump blood to vital organs. Over an extended period of time, this can lead to increased blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
A startling number of Americans have high blood pressure (nearly half). High blood pressure is often referred to as the “silent killer,” thanks to the fact that it often comes with no obvious symptoms. There are number of ways to prevent or lower blood pressure — one of the most obvious is to monitor your daily salt intake. Other ways to keep your blood pressure healthy are exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption.
Certain foods — especially processed foods — have more salt than others.
The most obvious source of sodium in our diets is salt, and often this salt is coming from processed foods. According to the CDC, 40% of dietary sodium comes from the below 10 foods. We recommend avoiding these foods or at least limiting your consumption.
Breads and rolls
Cold cuts and cured meats
Burritos and tacos
Eggs and omelets
Savory snack foods
Eating out less can also help keep your sodium intake to a minimum. There’s a reason why restaurant food tastes better than the food you make at home. Restaurants often use more seasoning, which usually includes salt. Salt is also used in additives and preservatives commonly found in food served at chain restaurants.
The average American consumes way more sodium than they should on a daily basis.
Most Americans consume far too much sodium. According to the American Heart Association, Americans consume over 3,400 milligrams of sodium on average daily.
However, this is because the Standard American Diet is so highly processed. When you’re eating a whole-foods based diet, sodium intake is much lower. In this case, it’s not necessary to obsess over your sodium intake, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on it.
Current dietary guidelines recommend keeping your sodium intake to under 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
People who consume more than 5,000 mg per day of sodium were found to be at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day for adults. For those with high blood pressure or other heart concerns, reducing intake to less than 1,500 mg per day is advised.
However, other research gives us a different perspective. One study showed that consuming anything under 5,000 mg per day of sodium is healthy. Factors like intake of other minerals, overall lifestyle factors, and the main sources of sodium consumed all account for the differences that occur between studies.
Be sure to look for sodium levels on nutrition labels, and balance out your sodium intake by exercising and consuming other nutrients.
All nutrition labels are required to include sodium levels, which account for both the amount of added salt and naturally occurring sodium in that product. To find out where sodium is truly coming from, be sure to read ingredients lists and look for words like sodium chloride, sodium nitrate, disodium phosphate, and monosodium glutamate.
Balance out your sodium intake by staying active, properly hydrated, and eating a diet of whole, unprocessed foods rich in sodium and other minerals, like potassium. Potassium balances sodium and helps to lower blood pressure. Foods that are high in potassium include bananas, avocados, yogurt, spinach, potatoes, parsnips, swiss chard, and beets. No matter what, we recommend discussing your sodium needs with your healthcare provider.