Shake Your Sodium Habit

How to know more (because it’s hidden where you least expect) and consume less (because you likely need to cut back).

Photo by Tom Schierlitz

Sodium is sneaky: Even if you’re mindful of how much salt you sprinkle on your dinner, you’re probably still ingesting far too much from other sources. Earlier this year, the American Heart Association lowered its sodium-intake recommendation for healthy people to 1,500 milligrams (mg) a day, from 2,300 milligrams. However, most Americans consume more than twice the current recommended limit, says Aram Chobanian, M.D., a hypertension expert at Boston University Medical Center. Excess sodium is linked to elevated blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. These kill about 100,000 Americans annually.

The Basics

Sodium is an essential nutrient that is critical for transmitting nerve impulses, contracting and relaxing muscles, and maintaining the fluid balance in your body. Table salt, or sodium chloride, is roughly 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride (essentially another name for the element chlorine). In addition, since 1924, manufacturers have been enriching table salt with iodine, a naturally occurring element found in dairy products and seafood, to prevent iodine deficiency, which can lead to mental impairment and an enlarged thyroid gland. If you’ve hopped on the gourmet-salt bandwagon, note that these varieties, including Celtic, Hawaiian, and sea salt, don’t contain iodine but do have the same amount of sodium as table salt.

The Downside of Sodium

The benefits of sodium and iodine don’t add up to a reason to use more salt. “You’ll get enough sodium just by consuming a well-balanced diet. It’s in many vegetables, meats, nuts, grains, and dairy foods,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, in Boston. And with multivitamins and the varied foods available today, few Americans are deficient in iodine. When you consume too much sodium, your kidneys must get rid of the excess. Experts theorize that if your kidneys can’t keep up, then water is pulled from cells, causing blood volume to increase, which forces your heart to work harder and puts blood vessels under more pressure. This may raise your blood pressure and, in turn, your chances of heart attack and stroke. Another issue: potassium, which works with sodium to maintain the body’s water balance. Most Americans don’t eat enough potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, says Chobanian. And, he says, “when potassium intake is low and sodium intake is high, it makes the problems associated with excess sodium worse.”