Shaking the Salt (Part 1)

I hope you enjoyed a tasty Thanksgiving feast last Thursday. Chances are you’re still munching on leftovers. And it’s likely that many of you were counting the grams of carbohydrate in the stuffing, or the fat grams in the gravy. How many of you were thinking about the amount of sodium in the turkey with all the trimmings?


It’s okay if you didn’t; after all, Thanksgiving is a day to be thankful, as well as to relax a bit. But the reality is that a large number of people need to think about their sodium intake on a daily basis because of health issues, such as high blood pressure or congestive heart failure.

The term “sodium” is probably no stranger to you, given that it’s frequently mentioned in the news and is always listed on a food label. But what is it, really? Sodium is a mineral that we need to stay healthy. All of the body’s fluids, such as sweat and blood, contain sodium. Sodium works along with other minerals (also known as electrolytes), such as potassium, to regulate the shift of fluid in and out of the cells in our bodies. Fluids carry nutrients into our cells, and carry wastes out of our cells. The kidneys, in turn, help regulate the amount of sodium and fluid in our bodies so that they stay in balance. If you take in too much sodium, your kidneys will excrete what isn’t needed in your urine; you might also sweat it out through perspiration. But, if your kidneys aren’t working so well, excess sodium stays in your body, increasing blood volume. And a larger blood volume means that blood pressure is increased, since your heart has to work harder to pump the extra blood.

Excess sodium in your body can also lead to fluid retention in your cells and tissues. You can easily tell if this is happening because your ankles might be puffy, or your rings might be tight on your fingers.

Sodium does more than regulate fluid balance, by the way. It also works closely with potassium and chloride ions to help your nerves conduct nerve impulses. So, sodium isn’t a bad thing. But, like many things in life, too much of it isn’t so good. The key, then, is taking in the right amount of sodium to maintain good health.

So how much sodium do you need, anyway? Well, it depends. The American Heart Association recommends that we take in no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day. This isn’t salt we’re talking here; even though we use the terms “salt” and “sodium” interchangeably, they’re not quite the same. Salt is actually made up of sodium chloride (40% sodium and 60% chlorine, to be more precise). A teaspoon of salt weighs about 5 grams and contains about 2,300 mg of sodium—the amount that the American Heart Association tells us not to exceed. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 also recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day—if you’re relatively healthy. People with high blood pressure, middle-aged and older adults, and African-Americans ideally should aim for no more than 1,500 mg per day. That’s because these groups of people have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.

The American Diabetes Association is pretty much in line with the American Heart Association—it recommends no more than 2,400 mg of sodium daily. This isn’t surprising, since people with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure and kidney problems than people without diabetes. Ask your health-care provider about the right amount of sodium for you.

You may be interested to know that the average American consumes, on average, between 3,000 to 4,000 mg of sodium each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Many people take in up to 6,000 mg of sodium or even more. Yikes!

Next week: Sodium lurks in surprising places!

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  • parmasan

    Great article – the only way I have been able to cut back on sodium intake is not sprinkle ant extra salt on food- salt is in almost every prepared food we eat- it seems almost unavoidable. If something really needs a little salt – (like eggs)I use a small amount of all natural sea salt (still sodium but maybe better) or something called “Heart Salt” a lower sodium salt.

  • Oliver Neaves

    you do not mention substitutes for salt

  • bubba66

    I only use pepper on my foods. I read all labels on everything to check the sodium content, Every piece of meat and processed foods carry loads of sodium. So I don’t ever use salt, I’ve had congested heart failure and get lots of edema, swelling in my hands and legs and ankles, so I am very cautious about what I eat and try to avoid salt/sodium at all costs. Otherwise I suffer.

  • Ephrenia

    One thing my family has discovered is… Popcorn Salt!
    1) It is lower sodium than table salt
    2) the coloring makes you think you are getting a lot with a little

  • David Spero RN

    There are lots and lots and lots of spices and flavors we can use instead of salt. I’ve been using a lot of curry powder lately. My Mom bought a salt substitute – plain citric acid in a bottle. It’s good!

    Try some new things!

  • Jacqueline

    Because my beloved husband had heart problems, I switched to Morton’s Lite Salt – and let him see me “lightly” salt his food. Of course, I had to do the same with my own so as to not upset him. After a while, neither of us had any great need of salt on our foods. IF I used butter on anything and it had salt in it, I never even put the Lite Salt on the foods. Believe me, it takes “mind over matter” sometimes and also joining in on “the party”, too, for all the family.

    I will try some of your suggestions! The Citric Acid sounds good to me, too.

    God Bless!

  • glitterock

    Some salt substitutes such as “No Salt” are not recommended when taking other certain medications. I learned this while working as a Certified Med Tech. Please check with your doctor before deciding to try any of these.

    • acampbell

      Hi glitterock,

      Thank you for pointing this out. Indeed, some salt substitutes contain potassium instead of sodium. Too much potassium can be harmful for those with kidney disease.