Salt/Sodium 101

Although sodium and salt are often used interchangeably, table salt is actually sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) combined to form sodium chloride (NaCl).  The “salt” recommendations that we hear about are actually sodium recommendations.  Sodium is not only found in salt (NaCl), but also naturally in foods, as well as other compounds such as MSG and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).   This important electrolyte serves many roles in the body including: fluid balance, nerve impulses, and muscular functions.

 

It’s recommended to consume 2,300 mg of sodium a day and 1,500 mg if you are African American, 51 years or older, or suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.  Unfortunately, the convenience foods of the U.S. food system (not convenient for our health I might add) make it nearly impossible to reach these recommendations (I say nearly because where there is a will there is certainly a way). If you are the 1 in 18 individuals who meets this goal, kudos to you.  For the vast majority of Americans, however, salt is something we need to cut back on.  Salt is not only found in foods that we think of as salty, such as pickles and soups, but also in foods that we don’t even consider salty.  According to the Mayo Clinic, over 3/4 of the sodium in our diets comes from processed food. Consequently, reducing these foods is the perfect place to start! If you aren’t doing so already, start looking at nutrition labels to get a sense of how much salt you currently eat.

Let’s do a quick sodium run down in the typical day of a person on-the-go.

 

Sample Meal
Sodium in each meal component
Total mg sodium
Quaker instant oatmeal
made with 1/2 cup milk
75 + 60
135
Crispy Chicken Sandwich meal from McDonald’s (with med fries and large Coke)
1170 + 270 + 15
1,445
Oats and Chocolate Fiber One Bar
90
90
Baked BBQ chicken, Rice-A-Roni, salad with Asian sesame dressing
500 + 960 + 440
1,400

 

The grand total–drum roll please…comes to 3,080 mg of sodium!  Although this represents an astonishing 134% of the 2,300 mg recommendation and 205% of the 1,500 mg recommendation, this scenario above is pretty forgiving since most people eat more than the serving size in a Rice-A-Roni package and more than 2 tablespoons of salad dressing.  With this example, you can see how it’s easy for us to consume 3 and 4 times the healthy recommendation for sodium. Add in frequent meals at restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory which has a meal with a whopping 3,210 mg of sodium, and your day’s value can rise well over 8 times the recommendation (see a list of outrageous foods here).  (Ahhh the memories of eating the entire package of a 1400 mg-of-sodium Oodles of Noodle).  If Oodles of Noodles or Cup of Ramon is a staple in your diet, please start reducing this edible food-like substance as soon as possible!!

People often wonder what’s the big deal about salt if we need it in our bodies anyway. Sodium’s role in fluid balance contributes to its impact on high blood pressure and cardiovascular health.   When overloading our bodies with sodium, our system responds by retaining water to help maintain the body’s normal sodium levels.  Through a constant balancing act, our kidneys work hard to eliminate this extra sodium by excreting it in our urine, meanwhile hormones (aldosterone and antidiuretic hormone/vasopressin) also work to retain water in our blood to dilute the extra sodium.

Imagine blood vessels as narrow balloons filled with water; there is only so much pressure that can be placed on the walls of a balloon until it bursts.  Lucky for us, our internal balloon system (aka blood vessels) don’t burst immediately, due to the elasticity of our blood vessels.  But over time, people can develop high blood pressure because their bodies can no longer maintain the proper level of pressure against their blood vessel walls. At a certain point, the vasculature becomes scarred, creating a cascading inflammatory response that contributes to the hardening and narrowing of our arteries (as shown in the image above).  At an unfortunate moment for approximately 1.7 million Americans a year, damaged vessels in either the brain or heart burst resulting in a stroke or heart attack (the entire point of the Gain Great Health site is to prevent this from being you or your loved ones!!!). At the point of a heart attack or stroke, years of unhealthy lifestyle habits (combined with, in some cases, genetic predisposition) become unsustainable for the body.

By taking back control of what you put into your system, meeting the recommendation (most of the time!) doesn’t have to be as far fetched as it may seem.  Here’s to preserving our internal balloon systems and no busted balloons down the line!!!

If you’re an auditory learning, check out the video below released by the Centers for Disease Control, titled Salt Matters: Preserving Choice, Protecting Health. It’s a nice summary of this blog entry, along with the previous entry on processed foods.

 

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