Shaking America’s unhealthy salt habits

Americans love salty foods. The average American consumes 3400 mg of sodium per day. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends that Americans should target under 2300 mg of sodium daily, and the American Heart Association recommends a target of under 1500 mg sodium daily for healthy Americans.

While there is ongoing discussion on the best threshold for daily sodium intake, the fact remains that we are on average consuming 50–100 percent more sodium than we need every day.

Researchers estimate that a 40 percent reduction in sodium intake over the next ten years could save 500,000 lives and lower health costs by 100 billion dollars.

The health consequences of our salt habits are clear. Excess sodium intake is associated with high blood pressure. Hypertension increases the risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States. High salt diets are associated with increased risk for stomach cancer and osteoporosis. Researchers estimate that a 40 percent reduction in sodium intake over the next ten years could save 500,000 lives and lower health costs by 100 billion dollars.

The Food and Drug Administration has launched an initiative to lower the sodium content of processed and commercially prepared foods over the next ten years to a target of under 2300 mg sodium intake per day.

Food companies and restaurants will be directed to gradually lower sodium content of the foods they offer. Voluntary guidelines are being recommended with timelines for 2 year goals and 10-year goals. We do not detect small changes in sodium reduction (10–15 percent). Over time, taste buds will adapt to prefer lower sodium levels.

Salt and Health

We need about 500 mg sodium daily to maintain health. Sodium is required for muscle and nerves to function properly. The human body is about 70 percent water, and sodium in our tissues help us maintain proper fluid levels in our blood and tissues.

If we consume more sodium than we need, the kidneys are tasked with eliminating the excess sodium in our urine — they are essentially asked to work overtime when sodium intake is above the recommendation. Too much sodium can lead to fluid retention and is associated with high blood pressure.

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In fact, one in three adults in the United States has high blood pressure.

Where is the Sodium in Foods?

Sodium occurs naturally in animal products. One egg contains contains about 70 mg sodium. Fresh meats (beef, port, fish or poultry) contain between 20-40 mg of sodium per ounce. An 8 ounce glass of milk contains about 120 mg sodium. About 30 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from foods that contain some sodium naturally. Fresh vegetables, fruits and starchy foods are very low in sodium.

When we think about sodium, table salt comes to mind. Table salt is about half sodium and half chloride. A teaspoon of table salt contains about 2300 mg of sodium. Salt added at the table is about 7–10 percent of our total sodium intake in the United States.

Source: American Heart Association
Source: America Heart Association

The fact is that 70 percent of our sodium intake is added to processed foods. When we pickle or can foods, we add sodium. When we cure or smoke meat, sodium is added. Sodium is added to processed foods to enhance flavor and extend the shelf life of the foods we eat. Crackers and chips are salted. Canned vegetables average 300 mg sodium per serving.

Foods prepared away from home contain much more sodium than home-cooked meals. A burger at a fast food restaurant contains 500-1200 mg sodium in one sandwich. A 6-inch deli sandwich can provide 800-1200 mg sodium. It is possible to get 4000 mg of sodium in one restaurant meal, depending on the choices made.

Americans consume one-third of our calories away from home, where sodium intake is significantly higher.

Some processed foods may surprise you. The following foods are commonly high in sodium:

  • Check the label on your breads and rolls. While a slice of sandwich bread may contain about 140 mg sodium in one slice, you will find that foods like croissants, biscuits, muffins and bagels contain closer between 200 and 500 mg per serving.
  • Cured meats contain 200-400 mg sodium per ounce.
  • Pizza can contain 600 mg sodium per slice
  • Canned soups contain up to 1000 mg sodium per one-cup serving.

Safe Bets for a Lower Sodium Intake:

  • Think fresh…
    • Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fresh lentils are naturally low in sodium
    • Unprocessed meats that are grilled, baked or broiled will be lower sodium than cured or smoked meats.
    • Limit processed cheese
  • Lighten up on sauces and gravies
    • Ask for sauces and gravies on the side when they are part of a dish
    • Choose vinegar and oil over prepared dressings for salads
  • Choose salad instead of soup
  • Try fresh fruits instead of prepared desserts
  • Caution with salty condiments
    • Choose mustard over ketchup
    • Limit soy sauce, Worstershire sauce
    • Hold the pickles and the pickled jalepenos
  • Season for flavor without the sodium
    • Choose herbs and spices to add gusto to your meal. Cayenne, oregano, comino, cilantro, dill, chives, basil, turmeric, and black pepper are all low sodium flavor powerhouses
    • Limit sea salt, which is not substantially lower in sodium from table salt.
    • Choose powdered herbs instead of garlic salt, celery salt, seasoning salt, and most varieties of lemon pepper are high is sodium
    • Choose fresh lemon or lime instead of lemon pepper — often salt is the first ingredient in this popular flavoring
Source: American Heart Association
Source: American Heart Association

About the author

Julie Paff
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Julie Paff, RD, LD, CDE is a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes educator on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Health. She has 37 years of professional experience in four states. Her passion in managing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and chronic kidney disease. Julie teaches Diabetes Boot Camp at the Cedar Park Clinic and the Georgetown Specialty Clinic in Central Texas. She sees patients for diabetes education and nutrition counseling at Round Rock Specialty Clinic, Cedar Park Clinic and Georgetown Specialty Clinic.

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Shaking America’s unhealthy salt habits