Sugar hides in plain view on many food labels, as honey, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and any number of nutrient-poor, calorie-rich, so-called “natural” sweeteners. And sugar has good reason to hide: It’s the target of big public health campaigns, soda-taxing schemes, and anti-fructose agitation, the result of its suspected link to obesity. Salt, meanwhile, continues to get away with, well, murder.
Like sugar, sodium chloride is a common food additive, but you don’t hear the public outrage about sodium excess that you do for added sugars. This is an unhealthy side effect of focusing on sugar and, of course, fat: We still haven’t gotten the message that slashing sodium intakes is crucial to better health. On average, we consume about 1½ times more sodium per day than the 2,300 milligrams (the amount in one teaspoon of table salt) allotted by the Dietary Guidelines. This overconsumption is about 10 to 20 times more than our body’s need for water balance and electrolyte function. Too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, a major cause of heart disease.
Aside from the direct link to hypertension, having a serious salt habit may up your body’s needs for potassium, calcium, magnesium, or other nutrients to balance the load. You’re perpetually compensating for a nutrient imbalance. In part, the Dietary Guidelines recommend generous servings of low-fat dairy products, fruits, and vegetables to provide much-needed nutrients that offset the effects of processing excess sodium.
Nor do population studies reveal the salt equivalent of the French Paradox, in which other nutrients seem to negate fat-rich diet risks. People who consume loads of salt pay a price. “In China we see that high sodium intakes in a lean society is a deadly combination,” says Linda Van Horn, PhD, RD, and nutrition committee chairperson of the American Heart Association. (Cardiovascular disease is estimated to account for 33 percent of deaths in China.) Meanwhile, the Yanomami Indians of Brazil, who consume less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium a day, do not experience age-related blood pressure increases (like Western populations do) and have lower heart disease risks. Though lifestyle or genetic factors may be involved, Van Horn notes this group proves that extremely low sodium intakes can support a healthy body.
Even if you are healthy and have normal blood pressure, slashing sodium intakes is important, according to the landmark 1990s DASH study (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). “The study was valuable because it provided conclusive evidence that lowering sodium and increasing fruit and vegetable intakes had a significant blood pressure response,” says Van Horn. Even participants with normal blood pressure lowered their blood pressure during the study. “This is huge because the results illustrate that what we call normal in this country is abnormal,” Van Horn says. “Blood pressure doesn’t need to increase with age.”
It would be tough for any American to consume 1,000 milligrams of sodium a day, especially with our dependence on processed foods and meals eaten away from home, which contribute nearly 80 percent of dietary sodium. Manufacturers make convenience foods with—in chemistry speak—lots of sodium “salts,” from sodium citrate to sodium phosphate. It’s not just to add flavor: “Sodium is soluble, and it’s often used to help mix or dissolve other ingredients in recipes,” says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists. What’s attached to sodium is often the magic-maker, yielding a firmer canned bean or a crispier cracker.
If we all need to cut sodium, how do we do it? First, hold off on the salt shaker. Watch for sodium on food labels; make lower-sodium and no-salt products your default choices. (Swanson was ahead of the trend when the company introduced lower-sodium chicken broth in 1987. Now shelves are stocked with lower-sodium soy sauce, crackers, tomato juice, and deli meats.) Add fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products to your diet. Become sodium-aware in restaurants as well— understand the levels in soy sauces, ham, and cheeses.
The point is not to become saltphobic. A little bit—about the amount of 1 teaspoon of table salt a day—is OK for your health. But when it comes to sodium, less is certainly more.