There’s no doubt about it — salt tastes good. A sprinkle of plain old table salt (aka sodium chloride) perks up the taste buds and truly enhances the flavors in food.
Salt is also critical to our body chemistry: A certain level of sodium is necessary for the correct function of nerves and muscles. The minimum daily sodium intake to maintain these functions is somewhere between 500 and 1,500 milligrams per day.
But too much of a good thing can be bad for you. While individuals vary in their sensitivity to dietary salt, organizations from the Centers for Disease Control to the American Heart Association recommend that Americans consume no more than 2,300 mg per day of sodium. (That translates to about 1 teaspoon of table salt — about 5.5 grams.) For some groups — adults older than 40, African Americans and people with high blood pressure — that daily maximum drops to 1,500 mg of sodium. The recommendations are sharply lower than the actual average daily sodium intake of about 3,400 mg.
A recently released study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) posits that if all Americans reduced salt consumption by just 1 gram (1000 mg) per day, it would result in 250,000 fewer new cases of heart disease and 200,000 fewer deaths over a decade. A 3-gram-per-day reduction in salt would have societal health benefits “on the same order of magnitude as if we could eliminate smoking in the population,” according to the study’s lead researcher.
“If somebody wanted to make a change to benefit their health, reducing sodium is one of the best things you can do,” says Michelle Weinbender, a registered dietitian with Sacred Heart Medical Center.
The main reason, she says, is the role that salt plays in the complex physiological dance that regulates blood pressure.
“Serum sodium levels — the levels of salt within the blood — have to stay within a range,” she says. “There are lots of regulatory processes that go on with your kidneys, lots of physiology that’s part of that … But when you have a diet high in salt, the body has to compensate for that and keep the sodium range in check. Sometimes the body will hold onto fluid to dilute that sodium level down.”
As the volume of fluid in the circulatory system increases, it places more pressure on the vessel walls — increasing blood pressure. And uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to atherosclerosis, kidney disease, heart disease and stroke.Even if you’re determined to reduce your sodium intake, it’s not always easy to find the sources of sodium in the diet. Cutting out added salt at the table or while cooking is an obvious first step, but that generally results in a relatively small cutback. The bulk of the sodium in the American diet now comes from processed foods.
“The next step then is really looking at those food labels while shopping, and sleuthing out where the sodium is coming into the diet,” Weinbender says.
In addition to tasting good, salt helps to preserve food. In the days before refrigeration, salt was the primary tool available to keep meats and dairy products from spoiling. Now salt is used frequently to stabilize a product and extend its shelf life.
“I’m often surprised at the sodium levels in packaged foods,” she says. “Bread sticks and bagels can have 400 milligrams in a serving. Even chocolate milk … Anything in a can, or in a box with a seasoning packet — those are laden with salt. A can of chicken noodle soup has 990 milligrams of sodium per serving, and the can is two servings. How many people only eat half a can of soup?”
Condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce and even soy sauce are less of an issue than many people think, she says, but many fast foods are prime offenders. According to a study of popular fast foods in the Nutrition Action Healthletter of March 2005, a Burger King Whopper contains 1,020 mg of sodium; a Big Mac delivers 1,010 mg. Prefer the Wendy’s Classic Triple with cheese? That packs 2,060 mg of sodium (along with 970 calories, for those counting). And don’t feel smug if you choose grilled chicken: Wendy’s Ultimate Chicken Grill may have only 360 calories, but it’ll still deal you 1,090 mg of sodium.
“For people who eat fast food once or twice a day, you could get 5,000 milligrams of sodium a day, easy,” says Weinbender. And that’s more than double the recommended amount.
Despite the heavyweight sodium punch of fast foods, Weinbender doesn’t tell her patients to completely eliminate their favorite treats or convenience foods.
“You just have to work it into your total for the day,” she explains. “People have their favorite foods, so I say, ‘Think about how many times a week you have that food, then cut that back, and then balance it out with what you eat for the rest of the week.’ It’s all about the numbers and what they add up to over the course of a week, but it’s also having an awareness — looking at labels, seeing where the big contributors are.”
Cutting back on salt may be difficult at first, but soon the palate adapts to the less-salty flavor. “I tell people it takes about three weeks to adjust,” Weinbender says. “Others say six weeks. But if you just work at it, then you’ll begin to notice when you’ve had something that’s high in salt, and you’ll learn to appreciate other flavors.”
And cutting back on salt may just add to your health and longevity — meaning you’ll appreciate the flavors of life for a longer time.