Most Americans consume too much salt — or, more accurately, sodium. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those 51 and older average about 3,000 milligrams of sodium per day, twice what the American Heart Association recommends and about 30 percent more than the Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines of fewer than 2,300 mg per day.
A steady stream of studies over decades has linked too much dietary sodium to high blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors. “There’s consistent evidence that in countries with high levels of salt intake, blood pressure rises more steeply with the aging of the population,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “In countries with low salt intake, blood pressure rates do not rise as much with age.”
Negative health effects
When you consume excess sodium regularly, the kidneys can’t keep up with the need to excrete it. It gets stored in the blood, increasing water retention and blood volume. “The heart then has to work harder to pump the blood, which increases pressure on your arteries,” says Brigid Titgemeier, a nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. “Over time, the arteries stiffen, causing your blood pressure to go up.”
Reducing sodium is especially important for people with hypertension. “A high sodium intake makes it harder to regulate your blood pressure even with medication,” says Lisa J. Harnack, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. Research has also shown a connection between high-sodium diets and health problems such as kidney stones and stomach cancer. Weight gain might be a consequence of a high-sodium diet, too.
Sleuthing out sodium
According to a study published this year in Circulation, a mere 5 percent of Americans’ sodium intake comes from salt added at the table; only 6 percent comes from salt added during cooking. By contrast, 71 percent comes from packaged and restaurant foods.
The 10 top sodium-laden food categories are breads, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soups, burritos and tacos, savory snacks (including chips, popcorn, pretzels and crackers), chicken, cheese, and eggs and omelets. These categories make up 44 percent of Americans’ overall sodium intake.
Cut your sodium intake
Anyone diagnosed with high blood pressure is probably familiar with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which reduces your intake of sodium and increases that of calcium, magnesium and potassium. That means plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and less sodium, saturated fat, sugars and processed food.
Over the past two decades, researchers have consistently found that following DASH lowers blood pressure by as much as 12 points for the systolic or upper, number, and six points for the diastolic (lower) number.
Even if you don’t strictly adhere to the DASH diet, follow its basic tenets, which include eating more whole, unprocessed foods and produce. “The most important change you can make is to cook whole foods and eat at home,” Titgemeier says.
When cooking, experiment with different herbs and spices. Titgemeier also recommends using vinegars and citrus for marinades and cooking: “They are acidic, which works as a natural flavor enhancer.”
If you aim for a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the amount of sodium you eat, chances are you won’t be able to tell the difference. “Sodium receptors on the tongue recalibrate over time,” Mozaffarian says. “So if you reduce your intake gradually, you won’t even notice.”
When buying packaged foods, look for those labeled “low sodium.” According to the Food and Drug Administration, that means a product can’t have more than 140 mg of sodium per serving. Cut the sodium in canned foods by rinsing canned beans, vegetables and fish. Because restaurant foods are often very high in sodium, have your server point out low-sodium options or ask whether the chef can limit salt in your dish.