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Sodium: How to tame your salt habit now
Find out how much sodium you really need, what high-sodium foods to avoid, and ways to prepare and serve foods without adding salt or sodium.By Mayo Clinic staff
You've been trying to eat less sodium — just a pinch of table salt on your baked potato and a dash on your scrambled eggs. But a pinch here and a dash there can quickly add up to unhealthy levels of sodium. Consider that just one teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium. And it's not just table salt you have to worry about. Many processed and prepared foods already contain lots of sodium — and it's these foods that contribute the most sodium to your diet.
If you're like many people, you're getting far more sodium than is recommended, and that could lead to serious health problems. See how sodium sneaks into your diet and ways you can shake the habit.
Sodium: Essential in small amounts
Your body needs some sodium to function properly because it:
- Helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body
- Helps transmit nerve impulses
- Influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles
Your kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in your body for optimal health. When your sodium levels are low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When sodium levels are high, your kidneys excrete the excess in urine.
But if for some reason your kidneys can't eliminate enough sodium, the sodium starts to accumulate in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases. Increased blood volume makes your heart work harder to move more blood through your blood vessels, which increases pressure in your arteries. Such diseases as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis and chronic kidney disease can make it hard for your kidneys to keep sodium levels balanced.
Some people's bodies are more sensitive to the effects of sodium than are others. If you're sodium sensitive, you retain sodium more easily, leading to fluid retention and increased blood pressure. If this becomes chronic, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure.
Sodium: How much do you need?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you're age 51 or older, or if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Keep in mind that these are upper limits, and less is usually best, especially if you're sensitive to the effects of sodium. If you aren't sure how much sodium your diet should include, talk to your doctor.
Sodium: Main dietary sources
The average American gets about 3,400 mg of sodium a day — much more than recommended. To help keep your sodium consumption in check, you need to know where the sodium comes from. Here are the main sources of sodium in a typical diet:
- Processed and prepared foods. The vast majority of sodium in the typical American diet comes from foods that are processed and prepared. These foods are typically high in salt, which is a combination of sodium and chloride, and in additives that contain sodium. Processed foods include bread, prepared dinners like pasta, meat and egg dishes, pizza, cold cuts and bacon, cheese, soups, and fast foods.
- Natural sources. Some foods naturally contain sodium. These include all vegetables and dairy products such as milk, meat and shellfish. While they don't have an abundance of sodium, eating these foods does add to your overall sodium intake. For example, 1 cup (237 milliliters) of low-fat milk has about 107 mg of sodium.
- In the kitchen and at the table. Many recipes call for salt, and many people also salt their food at the table. Condiments may also contain sodium. One tablespoon (15 milliliters) of soy sauce, for example, has about 1,000 mg of sodium.
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