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The Facts About Sodium & How Much Is Too Much

August 30, 2021

Our bodies need sodium to function optimally, but too much sodium can have a harmful effect, particularly on the heart. How can you know whether you’re getting the right amount?

Let’s first define what sodium is. You might think of it as synonymous with salt, but it’s actually not quite the same thing. Sodium is one component of salt. When you combine sodium with chloride, you get table salt.

Sodium plays an important role in the body, helping your nerves and muscles function properly and helping maintain a proper balance of water and minerals. But only a small amount of sodium is needed, and sodium deficiency is quite rare.

On the other hand, getting too much sodium is very common, particularly among Americans. How much is too much, and what can you do to lower your intake? Read on to get the facts.

What Too Much Sodium Does to the Body
Your kidneys are responsible for clearing the body of waste and excess amounts of minerals, sodium included. But when you get too much sodium in the foods you eat, your kidneys can’t get rid of it all. This leads to sodium building up in your blood.

Why is too much sodium such a problem? Well, as sodium builds up and the kidneys can’t get rid of it, your body begins to hold on to water to dilute that sodium. This increases the amount of fluid all around the body and the amount of blood in the bloodstream.

That causes the heart to work harder and puts more pressure on the blood vessels, which leads to high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a health danger in and of itself, but it also increases your risk of developing many serious health issues, including heart disease, heart failure and stroke.

How Much Sodium You Need
As we mentioned before, getting enough sodium is rarely a problem. But getting too much is quite common.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. That’s about one teaspoonful. The American Heart Association goes even further, recommending that adults work toward ideally getting no more than 1,500 mg per day

Contrast those recommendations with how much sodium Americans are actually getting—we consume an average of more than 3,400 mg per day!

Where All That Sodium Comes From
Think you need to cut back on your sodium intake? You’re probably right! So, where should you cut? You might be surprised by the answer.

Dr. John Baker

“When people think about cutting back on their sodium intake, they often think of using less salt,” says John Baker, MD, cardiologist with West Tennessee Medical Group. “While salt used to flavor our foods is certainly one part of our sodium intake, the vast majority of sodium comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. So it’s important to pay attention to the sodium that is already in the foods you eat as well.”

That’s because sodium is often used as a preservative, meaning it is commonly found in many of the prepared foods you eat. In fact, more than 70% of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged and prepared foods, not table salt added while cooking or eating.

Curious about the most common sodium-containing culprits? The “Salty Six, identified by the American Heart Association provides a good starting point:

  • Bread
  • Pizza
  • Sandwiches
  • Cold cuts
  • Soup
  • Burritos/tacos

While these foods aren’t necessarily something you’d think of as salty, they often contain sodium as a preservative.  

To trim your intake of sodium, keep a careful eye on the nutrition label of packaged foods—and the nutrition information for restaurant foods, when available. Specifically, look at the line item labeled “Sodium” and its percent of the daily value.

Not sure what to check for? You want to aim for a sweet spot: 5% or less of the daily value is considered low in sodium, while 20% or more of the daily value is considered high. Also consider the number of servings in the package; if it contains multiple servings, be sure to count up the sodium in the total amount of the food you consume.

When you can, choose foods that mention sodium on the front of the label, including messaging about “low sodium,” “reduced sodium” and being “light in sodium.”

You can also limit your intake of sodium by preparing more foods at home using fresh ingredients such as fruits and vegetables. This allows you to control what you’re putting in the food you will eat.

Could your heart use a checkup? Make today the day you schedule an appointment with a cardiologist! Find a provider.