Sodium: Do You Really Need to Worry About It?
Note from Cheryl: Thanks to media coverage of questions about the health effects of sodium, I’m running into more and more people who think it doesn’t matter, at least not for them. Unfortunately, controversy makes clickable headlines: “Everything you’ve been told about (topic de jour) is wrong!”
Studies challenging the need for sodium reduction have been criticized by leading hypertension experts, and continued calls for action to reduce it have been issued by leading health groups, from the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association to 60 Canadian Health and Citizens’ Groups. While some experts disagree on how low the targets should be, the vast majority agree that we get too much.
So when Britney Lentz asked if she could volunteer with Sweet Spot Nutrition, I suggested she write something for the blog about sodium and health. She’s got some shocking examples of hidden sodium and helpful tips for flavouring your food without it.
Britney is a recent honours grad of the University of British Columbia Food, Nutrition & Health program, and is currently applying for an internship that will take her down the road to becoming a dietitian. Enjoy!
Guest Post By: Britney Lentz
Did you know that if Canadians reduced our average sodium consumption from 3400mg to 1600mg a day, experts estimate we could save 23,500 cardiovascular disease events per year? In fact, sodium may be one of the most deadly substances in our food supply, given the amounts we typically eat.
If you’ve had a heart scare or are at risk for heart disease, you may know to closely monitor the amount of salt you eat each day. The link between a high intake of sodium, high blood pressure, and heart attack risk is well known.
But is it really a big deal if you don’t have any risk factors for heart disease? Public opinion research has shown that Canadians are aware of high sodium intakes as a health issue, but many perceive it to be “somebody else’s problem.”
The reality is that every Canadian needs to be mindful of their daily sodium intake.
How much sodium is too much?
A little bit of sodium is important for nerve transmission and fluid balance in the body, as well as muscle contraction for movements. However, the key word here is a little. According to the National Research Council, individuals aged 9-50 require about 1500 milligrams a day to meet their body’s needs (less for those younger or older than this age category). Major health organizations differ slightly on their suggestions for a recommended daily amount, ranging from 1500 mg a day (American Heart Association) to 2000 mg a day (Hypertension Canada) to 2300 mg a day (Heart & Stroke Foundation).
No idea how much you get? Jot down everything you’ve eaten today and your best guess at the sodium content. Fresh, minimally processed foods are close enough to zero, but check the labels for anything packaged, even simple foods like bread and milk. A teaspoon of salt contains 2300mg. If you ate at a restaurant, check their website or www.calorieking.com for an estimate.
If you’re much above 2000mg, try some of the tips below and check it again a few days later.
How does that compare to the typical Canadian intake? On average, we eat about 3400 mg a day! That’s more than double what our body needs. Any of the recommended intakes discussed above are significantly lower. All health organizations agree that most Canadians need to reduce their sodium intake.
Where does all that sodium come from?
The main culprits are fast and processed foods. In fact, commercially processed foods account for 77% of our sodium intake. This includes foods such as deli meats, cheeses, pizza, sauces, soups, and more. Even restaurants that advertise “healthier” choices may still be guilty.
In terms of food groups, grain products such as breads and cereals often have the highest levels of sodium. Condiments are also a sneaky culprit – one tablespoon of soy sauce may contain over 1000 mg!
The amount of sodium Canadians get from a salt shaker is small in comparison to the contribution from processed foods. (Just 6% is added at the table and 5% is added during cooking.) So if you’re thinking, “I don’t add any salt to my food, I don’t need to worry about this,” you may well still be eating too much sodium!
Footlong Turkey & Ham Sandwich (with cheddar and mustard) – 2,080 mg
Hunan Kung Pao with prawns – 4,120 mg
Grilled Chicken Flatbread – 2,110 mg
Turkey Bacon Club Sandwich with Classic Chicken Noodle Soup – 1,910 mg
Sodium at popular restaurants – a single meal can add up to a day’s worth or more!
What are the risks?
The most obvious risks associated with a long-term increased sodium intake are heart disease and stroke. On top of that, a diet high in sodium puts you at risk for kidney disease, as your kidneys filter it from your body. Overloading the kidneys with sodium hinders their ability to filter the blood and remove water, leading to higher blood pressure and kidney disease. Hypertension (increased blood pressure) is commonly seen in those with a high sodium intake.
Salt and Blood Pressure Facts from Hypertension Canada
- An estimated 2 million Canadians have hypertension caused by excess dietary sodium.
- Hypertension is the leading risk factor for death globally and affects more than 1 in 5 Canadians.
- Thirty percent of hypertension is attributed to high dietary sodium.
- Roughly 90% of Canadians are expected to develop hypertension over their life span.
A higher sodium intake may also contribute to other health problems, including adverse effects on bone density, stomach cancer, or asthma!
Common Salt Myths and Questions
“I’ve heard that sea salt is healthier than table salt”…While sea salt and table salt are processed differently (sea salt is made from the evaporating of ocean water with minimal processing, whereas table salt is mined from salt deposits), they have a comparable sodium content per weight, with the same nutritional value. The taste may be different, but the sodium is about the same!
“I’ve heard that strictly limiting the amount of salt I eat can increase my risk for heart disease”…Some evidence suggests a J-shaped curve between sodium intake and heart problems, meaning that very low levels may also be harmful. However, because our current intake is so high, most people can benefit from taking steps to cut back.
“What’s the difference between salt and sodium?”…Salt is made up of two minerals: sodium and chloride. Salt is approximately 40% sodium.
What are some ways to reduce my sodium intake?
Choose sandwiches made with roasted meat or poultry, instead of processed deli meats.
- When eating out, ask for dressing, sauces or condiments on the side and use only small amounts.
- At restaurants, ask for the nutrition brochure or look it up on your phone so you can choose lower-sodium items.
- Snack on fresh fruits or vegetables, unsalted nuts, or unsalted popcorn instead of salty pretzels, or chips.
- At the grocery store, compare products and choose ones with less sodium. (On the nutrition facts label, less than 5% of the Daily Value is considered “a little” and more than 15% is considered “a lot”.)
- Cook more and eat out less.
Making Food Taste Great Without the Salt
Instead of using salts and seasonings, try:
- Fresh or dried herbs and spices
- Lemon, lime or orange juice or zest
- Vinegars: Balsamic, red wine, rice wine and more
- Cooked onions, tomatoes, and other vegetables
- Garlic and ginger
- Jalapeno and other hot peppers
- Commercial salt-free blends (watch for potassium chloride, which some people should avoid – check with your doctor if you’re not sure).
It’s okay to use small amounts of salt in your home cooking, if you eat few processed and restaurant foods. Measure it to be sure. If you put a half-teaspoon of salt in a pot of soup, that’s about 1200mg of sodium. If the recipe makes ten cups of soup, each one will have 120mg of sodium, a fraction of what you’d get in canned or restaurant soup.
Want to learn more? The Government of Canada’s Healthy Canadians website has some great resources for choosing lower sodium alternatives at the grocery store or when eating out.
What are your favourite ways to cut back on sodium? Comments welcome on the Sweet Spot Facebook page.