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Is sodium needed in my diet?

Sodium balances the amount of water in your body and helps control blood pressure. It also allows nerve cells to carry messages between the brain and the body.

“Your body needs sodium to work correctly, but too much can hurt your health,” said Elizabeth White-Fricker, DO, Catholic Health Primary Care Physician. “Many people underestimate how much sodium they consume daily because they did not read a nutritional label or realize that seemingly healthy food has high levels of sodium.”

She noted that knowing your recommended daily salt intake and how to spot hidden sodium in food is an important part of a healthy eating plan.


How much sodium do you need a day?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. The ideal daily limit is no more than 1,500 mg. On average, Americans consume more than 3,400 mg of sodium daily. 

Some foods naturally have sodium, such as dairy products, meat, shellfish and vegetables. You can also find sodium in processed or prepared foods such as bread, cheese and soups.  


What are the health risks of too much sodium?

“Your body only needs a small amount of sodium to work properly,” said Dr. White-Fricker.

She explained that too much sodium in your diet can have short-term and long-term effects on your health, including:

  • Headaches
  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney stones
  • Osteoporosis 
  • Stomach cancer
  • Stroke

“Consuming too much sodium causes fluid to build up in your body,” said Dr. White-Fricker. “This water retention can lead to bloating, puffiness or weight gain. It can also cause your ankles, feet, hands or legs to swell.” 


What is the difference between salt and sodium?

“Salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Salt is a chemical compound composed of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. It adds flavor to food and keeps food from going bad. Table salt is the primary source of sodium in most diets.

Sodium is an essential mineral that occurs naturally in certain foods. Your body does not make sodium, so you must get it from your food. Although salt includes sodium, some foods with sodium—such as milk or vegetables—do not taste salty. 


Which foods contain the most sodium?

Well-known sources of sodium include lunch meats and pre-made or frozen dinners. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40% of the sodium Americans eat each day comes from 10 types of foods:

  • Breads and rolls
  • Burritos and tacos
  • Cheese
  • Chicken
  • Cold cuts and cured meats
  • Eggs and omelets
  • Sandwiches
  • Savory snacks such as chips, crackers, popcorn and pretzels
  • Pizza
  • Soups

How can I find hidden sodium in foods?

Dr. White-Fricker explained that an easy way to recognize foods with a high amount of added salt is “anything that comes in a package.”

“You will reduce your salt intake if you avoid packaged foods,” she said.

Reading nutrition labels will also help you determine how much sodium specific food contains. Labels list ingredients in descending order from most to least. If the package lists salt or sodium high on the nutrition label, that likely includes a lot of sodium.

Sodium also has several different names, including:

  • Disodium phosphate
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Sodium citrate

“Make sure you pay attention to the serving size on nutrition labels,” said Dr. White-Fricker. “Some products may contain more than one serving. Eating more than one serving will increase your sodium intake.” 

If you take over-the-counter or prescription medicine, check the ingredients. Antacids often have sodium bicarbonate, and cough medicines may have sodium benzoate or sodium citrate. 


How can I reduce my sodium intake?

Much of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged and restaurant foods. Reduce your sodium intake by:

  • Asking for a low-sodium option at restaurants.
  • Avoiding condiments such as ketchup, salad dressings and soy sauce.
  • Buying canned, fresh or frozen vegetables without added salt or sauce.
  • Choosing fresh meats instead of cured or processed meats.
  • Counting the milligrams of sodium in your food.
  • Limiting “instant” products such as ready-made pasta.
  • Using salt-free seasonings.

You can also make healthy swaps for your usual food choices. You can find products marked low-sodium or reduced-sodium. Look for the following terms:

  • Light in sodium or lightly salted: At least 50% less than the regular product.
  • Low sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.
  • No salt added or unsalted: No salt added during processing may still contain sodium unless labeled “salt-free” or “sodium-free.”
  • Reduced sodium: At least 25% less sodium than the regular product. 
  • Salt-free or sodium-free: Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Very low sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less per serving

“If you are at high risk for certain health conditions like high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, you must reduce your sodium intake,” said Dr. White-Fricker. “Talk to your primary care physician, who can recommend you to a dietician to help you create a balanced, nutritionally sound diet that reduces your risk for health complications.”


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