Move over, trans fat. Ciao, carbs. Salt is having its day in the nutrition hot seat. But beyond the salt we add in the kitchen and dining room, most of us don’t know where salt lurks, nor do we know the recommended limits, or why it even matters anyway. Even the terminology muddles things up: “Salt” and “sodium” are used almost interchangeably, but salt is only 40% sodium (the rest is chloride).
Our bodies need sodium to maintain the right balance of fluids in the body and to help with muscle movement and contraction. But high levels of sodium can elevate blood pressure—the force exerted on artery walls with each heartbeat—which damages the body’s circulatory system. The challenge is that not everyone has the same sensitivity to sodium, and a direct correlation between high or low sodium in the diet and cardiovascular disease risk has been difficult to prove.
Still, the 2010 update of the Dietary Guidelines recommends adults limit their daily intake to less than 2,300mg, the equivalent of just 1 teaspoon of salt. The limit for those at risk of high blood pressure—African-Americans, people with hypertension, and anyone over the age of 51—was lowered to 1,500mg.
Our challenge this month is to be salt-aware—to prudently monitor and reduce your intake even if you’re not hypertensive, and to actively reduce if you are. Pay attention to labels and how often you pick up the saltshaker. Use this time to savor the flavors of foods, experiment with spices and other flavorings that are not high in sodium, and, of course, check your blood pressure and other risk factors with your doctor.