From the Desk of The Nutty Nutritionist

Archive for the ‘Sodium’ Category

How to Win the War on Sodium

In Nutrition Basics, Sodium on October 20, 2010 at 12:40 PM

Unless you have been living under a rock or in some remote cave over the past 10 years, you have likely heard that dietary sodium can raise your blood pressure.  High blood pressure, or hypertension, (defined as 140/90 mm Hg) can lead to a heart attack, stroke, and/or aneurysm of a major artery.  This is scary, as there are typically no symptoms that your blood pressure is running high and wrecking havoc on your cardiovascular system.  Since hypertension can suddenly sneak up on you at any age and time, it important to get your blood pressure checked regularly, and adopt heart-healthy lifestyle habits.  This holds true whether your blood pressure is normal, high, or well-controlled with medication at the present time.

Salt is found naturally in many foods, and in this age of extravagant food processing, extra salt is added to foods to perform specific functions—such as preservation, flavoring, or leavening.  You have likely seen or heard the words “salt” and “sodium” used interchangeably in nutrition-based recommendations.  What’s the difference?   Our every day “table salt”, whether it is sea salt, Kosher salt, or Morton’s refined salt, is 70% sodium, and 30% chloride.  It is the sodium component in salt that raises blood pressure.  Sodium is an essential nutrient for maintaining water balance in the body: sodium coming in or out, requires water to move in or out, and vice versa.  An example of this occurs when we sweat–your skin releases water to help cool the outside of your body–sweat will always contain sodium to help balance this water loss.    Another example is the development of thirst while eating salty foods.  As sodium is taken in through food, your thirst response encourages you to take in water to balance the excess sodium.  If you ignore your thirst, your body will compensate by pushing sodium and water out of your blood vessels into extracellular space (such as your belly or legs) resulting in “bloating” or “water retention”.   Bloating is a sign of a water/sodium imbalance.  The key to stopping the bloat is drinking more water or cutting down on sodium.  My suggestion is to do both.

To help maintain a proper water balance in your body, you need to take in 500 mg of sodium from foods every day.  Obtaining this small amount from foods is very easy.  The problem arises from getting too much sodium, such that your blood volume expands, putting excessive strain on your heart to pump the larger blood volume throughout the body.   As you age, arteries can harden, making the pressure rise even higher.  Research has proven time and again that the biggest predictor of heart attacks and strokes is high blood pressure. 

In recent years, the Institute of Medicine has asked the FDA (US Food and Drug Adminstration) to crack down on added salt in foods.  The current government recommendations has the maximum daily intake for sodium set at 2300 mg.  I am happy to report that the new federal “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, to be released at the end of 2010, will slash sodium to a max of only 1500 mg per day.  This will be quite the challenge for most Americans, but not impossible. 

The Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, has estimated that 77% of dietary sodium comes from processed foods and restaurant items.  No surprise there.  Americans average 3466 mg of sodium a day–the equivalent of about 1 1/2 tsp of salt.  The CDC’s analysis revealed five categories of food that contribute the most sodium to our diets, which might really surprise you:

1.  Grain mixtures, frozen meals, and soups contribute about 530 mg of sodium per day to the typical American’s diet.  Grains are no longer healthy when they are in the form of pizza, burritos, tacos, egg rolls, prepackaged pasta dishes, and frozen dinners.

2.  Ham, bacon, sausage, and other highly processed lunch meat contribute about 425 mg sodium per day.

3.  Meat, poultry, and fish mixtures contribute about 285 mg sodium per day.  It is not the meat itself, but what we add to it.  Most seasoning mixes and marinades are loaded with sodium.  Perdue and Tyson pre-packaged meats are often bathing in a salt solution.  Who knew???

4.  Regular sandwich bread contributes 355 mg of sodium to the typical American diet.  The more bread you eat, the more sodium you get.

5.  Cakes, cookies, and crackers contribute about 230 mg sodium per day.  Yes, salted crackers are obvious….but did you know baking soda’s chemical name is sodium bicarbonate??

How can you avoid some of these high-sodium traps?  Look at the food labels.  A low sodium food, by definition, will contain less that 140 mg of sodium per serving.  Have you checked your Cheerios box lately?  220 mg of sodium for 3/4 cup of cereal is not exactly the “heart healthy” breakfast choice we imagined now, eh??  Avoiding cured, corned, pickled, salted, smoked foods, and fast foods from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell may seem obvious…however, it is crucial to keep a watchful eye on “innocent” sounding foods, such as whole grain cereals, breads, lean lunch meats, low-fat cheese, and low-fat baked goods.

To combat or prevent high blood pressure, you can also follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.  This plan focuses on eating whole foods, with very few processed items.  Focus on vegetables, fruits, unprocessed whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, and small amounts of unprocessed animal protein, such as chicken, fish, and eggs.  If you focus on eating mostly the above mentioned foods, you simply don’t have room on your plate for as much salty, processed food.  I encourage you to look up the specifics of the DASH diet online if you are truly interested in following such a plan to help manage your blood pressure and reduce your sodium intake.

Unfortunately, most previous public-education campaigns to reduce salt intake have failed, but I have high hopes for this current effort.   The government is finally putting pressure on food processors and restaurants to ratchet back on salt content.  The plan is to regulate the amount of salt added to foods and gradually roll back that limit as the industry and consumer taste buds adjust.  HOORAY 😉

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