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Salt: What You Really Need to Know About the Harmful & Healthful Effects of Sodium

Sodium is essential to the human body, helping to carry nutrients into cells, regulate body functions such as blood pressure and fluid volume, and keep the pressure balance normal on the lining of blood vessels.

"You cannot exist without sodium," says Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, a research nutritionist at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But the amount we need is minor."

"Seventy-five percent of the sodium consumed is in processed foods," says the FDA's Ellen Anderson, Ph.D.

This may be why the Institute of Medicine recently lowered the recommended daily sodium intake from 2,400 milligrams (mg) a day to 1,500 mg or less.

Many people routinely eat at least 4,000 mg a day, with some consuming amounts up to 6,000 mg, says Moag-Stahlberg.

"Many people argue that a healthy kidney can get rid of it [the excess], but in many cases, that happens at the expense of losing calcium," she says.

Salt: Is it Healthy or Harmful?

Whether or not extra salt in the diet is harmful is the topic of great debate. According to conventional medical thought, including what is advised by federal organizations, people can reduce their chances of developing high blood pressure by consuming less salt (which is sodium chloride).

Many studies have found that diets high in sodium are associated with higher blood pressure, along with an increased amount of calcium excreted in the urine. Eating less salt, say some, can therefore potentially decrease calcium loss from bone, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.

However, some studies, including one led by Hillel W. Cohen, an assistant professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, have found different results.

Cohen's team collected data on 7,278 people who participated in the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. After assessing deaths from heart disease and any other cause during a 13-year follow-up, they found that the less salt people ate, the greater their risk of dying from heart disease.

"We believe these data do not support" the current guidelines, said Cohen. "We are urging those who make these guidelines to go back to their data and look at additional data prior to making universal recommendations."

Specifically, the researchers found:

  • Consuming less than 2,400 mg of salt a day was associated with a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease.

  • For each 1,000-mg reduction in salt intake, the risk of cardiovascular mortality rose by 1 percent.

Cohen suggests that optimal salt intake may depend on the individual.

"It is likely that there are differences between individuals with regard to sodium intake," he said. "And it's clear that the data do not support the current recommendations ... From a biological standpoint, if one's kidneys are working reasonably well, sodium within the usual range of intakes shouldn't be a problem."

Not All Salt is the Same

Watching your salt intake? When eating out, tell your server that you don't want salt added to your meal. Most chefs will be happy to comply.

One thing's for certain in all of this: the majority of sodium that Americans eat comes from processed foods.

"Even though we think that it would be best to lower sodium in the diet to 1,500 mg," says Norman Kaplan, a hypertension expert at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, "we have to face the reality that we are living in an industrialized, commercialized world where average sodium consumption is high because food processors have been putting so much salt in our food."

"Seventy-five percent of the sodium consumed is in processed foods," says Ellen Anderson, Ph.D., physical chemist in the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Food Labeling. "What the food industry includes during processing, we can't take out."

To get an idea of just how much sodium is in processed foods, consider the sodium in the following:

  • Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich (8 oz.) -- 1,560 mg

  • Sbarro Supreme Pizza (1 slice) -- 1,580 mg

  • Corned beef sandwich with mustard (9 oz.) -- 1,920 mg

  • Lasagna (2 cups) -- 2,060 mg

  • Panera Smokehouse Turkey Panini on Artisan Three Cheese -- 2,320 mg

  • Ham sandwich with mustard (9 oz.) -- 2,340 mg

  • Chipotle Chicken Burrito, with cheese and salsa -- 2,490 mg

  • Pizza Hut Meat Lover's Stuffed Crust Pizza, large (2 slices) -- 2,500 mg

  • Chef salad with dressing (5 cups) -- 2,510 mg

  • Kung Pao chicken with rice (41/2 cups) -- 2,610 mg

Most of the salt used in processed foods, as well as the salt that is typically thought of as "table salt," is refined and contains chemicals such as moisture absorbents and iodine. Plus, it is dried at over 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, which alters the natural chemical structure of the salt and takes away many natural benefits.

Further, table salt often contains preservatives that do not have to be listed on the packaging, along with additives like calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, and aluminum hydroxide to improve the ability of the salt to pour.

Pure Himalayan crystal salts, along with sea salts (if you can be assured they are not full of pollutants from the sea) can offer many more benefits to you than typical table salt, including supplying your body with healthy trace minerals -- and no environmental pollutants.

If you would like to include salt in your diet, recommends one of the pure, natural salts mentioned above. To minimize typical, refined sodium chloride in your diet, try these tips:

  • Be aware that there are often high levels of salt in fast food, condiments, restaurant meals, sauces, snacks and frozen dinners.

  • Choose fresh foods, such as plain meats, fish, fruits and vegetables whenever possible.

  • Read labels on processed foods you do buy, and watch out for high levels of sodium.

  • When eating out, tell your server that you don't want salt added to your meal.

  • If you add salt to your cooking, do it at the end. Cooking can lessen salt's flavor, so adding it at the end will give you more taste with a smaller amount.

Recommended Reading

Chromium: It May Help Prevent Heart Attacks, Improve Cholesterol & Much More ... So Are You Getting Enough?

The 8 Top Dietary Mistakes "Healthy Eaters" Make


America's Pressure Cooker

Forbes: Low-Salt Diets May Harm Heart

A Pinch of Controversy Shakes up Dietary Salt

Dietary Guidelines

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