Sodium intake may be a primary factor in the development of
high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for
heart attack and stroke.
The risk of getting high blood pressure increases with age.
There is a good percentage of the general public who can be described as salt sensitive. This means that their blood pressures are likely to increase when they eat a high-sodium diet, and conversely, their blood pressures may be lowered by limiting dietary sodium.
Salt sensitivity is difficult to accurately diagnose. Therefore, appropriate sodium recommendations are a subject of debate among nutrition experts. Many believe that all people should limit their sodium intakes to either treat or prevent hypertension, regardless of their present blood pressure level. The latest United States dietary guidelines (2010) suggest that ideally no more than 2,300 mg/day of sodium be consumed. People with high blood pressure, people older than 50 years, African Americans, people with diabetes, and people with kidney disease should limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day.
A major study in this area is DASH—Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This study found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat—now called the
DASH diet—helped lower blood pressure.
The second phase of the study found further reductions in blood pressure when the DASH diet was combined with a sodium intake of no more than 2,400 mg/day.
The combination of DASH diet and a sodium intake of no more than 1,600 mg/day was as effective in controlling blood pressure as medication regimen involving a single antihypertensive drug. For some people with mild hypertension, diet alone may be an effective means of blood pressure control when the diet includes adequate calcium and potassium along with sodium restriction.
Sodium is found in many foods. Some are obvious, but others may surprise you.
Sodium chloride, better known as table salt, is the major source of dietary sodium. About 1/3 to 1/2 of the sodium we consume is added during cooking or at the table.
Fast foods and commercially processed foods—canned, frozen, instant—also add a significant amount of sodium to the typical American diet. These include:
- Beef broth
- Commercial soups
- French fries
- Potato chips
- Salted snack foods
- Sandwich meats
- Tomato-based products
Sodium occurs naturally in:
- Milk products
- Soft water
All food products contain a Nutrition Facts label, which states a food's sodium content. The following terms are also used on food packaging:
|Food label term||Meaning|
|Sodium free||Less than 5 mg/serving|
|Very low sodium||35 mg or less/serving|
|Low sodium||140 mg or less/serving|
|Reduced sodium||25% reduction in sodium content from original product|
|Unsalted, no salt added, without added salt||Processed without salt when salt normally would be used in processing|
- Read the nutrition label to find out how much sodium is in the foods you are purchasing.
- Gradually cut down on the amount of salt you use. Your taste buds will adjust to less salt.
- Taste your food before you salt it; it may not need more salt.
- Substitute flavorful ingredients for salt in cooking, such as garlic, oregano, lemon or lime juice, or other herbs, spices, and seasonings.
- Opt for fresh foods instead of processed foods. For example, select fresh or plain frozen vegetables and meats instead of those canned with salt.
Look for low sodium, reduced sodium, or no salt added versions of your favorite foods
- Cook and eat at home. Adjust your recipes to gradually cut down on the amount of salt you use. If some of the ingredients already contain salt, such as canned soup, canned vegetables, or cheese, you do not need to add more salt.
- Cook rice, pasta, and hot cereals without salt or with less salt than the package calls for (try 1/8 teaspoon for two servings). Flavored rice, pasta, and cereal mixes generally already contain added salt.
- When dining out, order a low-salt meal or ask the chef not to add salt to your meal.
- Limit your use of condiments, such as soy sauce, dill pickles, salad dressings, and packaged sauces.
Making dietary changes takes time. Start slowly and find what works best for you. When you find the right combination, you will be able to decrease the amount of salt you consume.
DASH diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated March 3, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: . Accessed April 1, 2013.
Hypertension. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated March 22, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Reduce salt and sodium in your diet. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: . Accessed April 1, 2013.
Salt. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: . Updated March 22, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Sodium (salt or sodium chloride). American Heart Association website. Available at: . Updated March 5, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Last reviewed April 2013 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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