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Sodium: How to tame your salt habit
Find out how much sodium you really need, what high-sodium foods to avoid, and ways to prepare and serve foods without adding sodium.By Mayo Clinic staff
If you're like many people, you're getting far more sodium than is recommended, and that could lead to serious health problems.
You probably aren't even aware of just how much sodium is in your diet. Consider that a single teaspoon of table salt, which is a combination of sodium and chloride, has 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium. And it's not just table salt you have to worry about. Many processed and prepared foods contain sodium.
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 body sodium is low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When body sodium is high, your kidneys excrete the excess in urine.
But if for some reason your kidneys can't eliminate enough sodium, the sodium starts to build up in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases, which makes your heart work harder and 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 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 or dietitian.
Sodium: What are the major dietary sources?
The average American gets about 3,400 mg of sodium a day — much more than recommended. 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 and 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, meat, and shellfish. While they don't have an abundance of sodium, eating these foods does add to your overall body sodium content. For example, 1 cup (237 milliliters) of low-fat milk has about 100 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 also may contain sodium. One tablespoon (15 milliliters) of soy sauce, for example, has about 1,000 mg of sodium.
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- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-PolicyDocument.htm. Accessed Feb. 21, 2013.
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov. Accessed Feb. 21, 2013.
- Dietary Reference Intakes for water, potassium, sodium, chloride, and sulfate. Institute of Medicine. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309091691. Accessed Feb. 21, 2013.
- Sodium (salt or sodium chloride). American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Sodium-Salt-or-Sodium-Chloride_UCM_303290_Article.jsp. Accessed Feb. 21, 2013.
- Duyff RL. American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. 4th ed. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons; 2012:159.
- Bibbins-Domingo K, et al. Projected effect of dietary salt reductions on future cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 2010;362:590.
- Sheps SG, ed. Mayo Clinic: 5 Steps to Controlling High Blood Pressure. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2008.