Are those pretzels making your thirsty? They're also adding to your daily sodium intake, which has a significant effect on your health. Too much and too little sodium can be detrimental to your health, so it's important to be mindful of finding the right balance of low- and high-sodium foods.
Here's what you should know about sodium:
The health effects of sodium
Sodium is an essential nutrient, aiding the body in maintaining the right balance of fluids, transmitting nerve impulses and guiding muscle contraction and relaxation. That means the body cannot function without sodium. However, as with most great things in life, too much can be harmful to your health. Some people are even more sodium-sensitive than others, which means they retain sodium more readily.
When there's too much sodium in your system, it begins to linger in your bloodstream. With an increased blood volume, your heart has to pump harder and your arteries are put under excess pressure. As a result, you can develop high blood pressure, or hypertension, which then leads to serious health risks and diseases, such as stroke, congestive heart failure, cirrhosis, chronic kidney disease, stomach cancer and osteoporosis. While reducing sodium intake can't prevent these conditions, it can eliminate a significant risk factor from your body.
Excess levels of sodium increase water retention, which also has an effect on your appearance and well-being by leading to puffiness, bloating and weight gain.
Signs of sodium overload
Nine out of 10 people consume more than twice the daily intake recommendation, according to the American Heart Association. Sixty-five percent of that sodium comes from products you regularly buy at the grocery store, while eating out at restaurants accounts for another 25 percent.
How do you know if you fall into that crowd? The food you eat is the first indication. You're likely setting yourself up for failure if you tend to be heavy-handed with the table salt - especially if the food is already cooked with salt or high-sodium ingredients. Plus, that fast food burger you indulge in when you're in a rush likely contains more sodium than you need to eat in the entire day.
If you're ingesting too much sodium, your body will send you signs, such as:
- All that salt is making you really thirsty.
- You're having trouble thinking clearly.
- You look and feel bloated, especially in the morning.
- Your doc told you that your blood pressure is higher than normal.
Keep in mind that some of these symptoms can be signs of other health conditions too, so talk to your doctor before you set your sights on a low-sodium diet. Considering the body needs sodium to function, too little in your system can also have harmful effects on your health.
The ideal daily sodium intake
According to the American Health Association, the golden number is 1500 milligrams. Other health organizations allow for more flexibility, but none recommend more than 2300 mg. However, as the average American consumes around 3400 mg, cutting back by even 1000 mg can significantly improve heart health and lower blood pressure.
Understanding nutrition labels
An important step to being conscious of your sodium intake is reading food labels carefully. Check the Nutrition Facts label on packaged and processed foods, choosing those that have 200 mg of sodium per serving or less. Look out for other high-sodium ingredients on the label, including MSG, baking soda and powder or any compounds with sodium in the name. Any ingredients with "soda" or "Na" in their names also contain sodium compounds.
Remember that even if the packaging says "reduced sodium," it's still a good idea to check out the numbers. While the product may contain less than the original recipe, it doesn't necessarily mean it's low in sodium. Your best bet is to choose foods labeled as low sodium and sodium- or salt-free.
The Percent Daily Value is also an easy way to differentiate which foods are the better choice. The Food and Drug Administration advised 5 percent DV or less as a low, healthy number, while 20 percent or more is too high. Refer to the FDA for more advice on reading the Nutrition Facts label.
The sodium-conscious diet
If you're watching your sodium intake, you'll need to be mindful of more than just pretzels and chips. While pre-packaged and processed foods are likely culprits of high-sodium intake, the American Heart and Stroke Associations put together a list of top foods that are surprisingly high in sodium. The Salty Six includes:
- Breads and rolls.
- Cold cuts and cured meats.
- Burritos and tacos.
Along with avoiding those foods, the Mayo Clinic further recommended ways to cut back on sodium, such as:
- Cook without salt.
- Eat fresh foods, vegetables, meat and poultry whenever possible.
- Buy products with low-sodium or sodium-free labels.
- Use high-sodium condiments (soy sauce, dressings, mustard, ketchup, etc.) sparingly.
- Try salt-free seasonings to help your taste buds with the transition.
- Rinse canned foods (tuna, beans, etc.) to remove some of the sodium.
- Try to prepare your own food rather than eating out.
- Reduce portion sizes when eating at a restaurant by sharing meals or taking half home.
You can also refer to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension for ways to reduce sodium intake and lower your blood pressure. Instead of eating sodium-rich foods, the DASH diet emphasizes nutrients like potassium, calcium and magnesium. Potassium especially can counter the effects of sodium, helping the body release sodium through urine and lower blood pressure. Here are a ton of DASH diet recipes from the Mayo Clinic to get you going, including appetizers, beverages, bread, dessert, salads, lunch and dinners.
Alternatively, use this sodium tracker from the American Heart and Stroke Associations to help record and manage your intake as you work toward mastering a healthy daily intake. As always, talk to your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet. He or she will take your medical history and current health conditions in mind when recommending a low-sodium diet.