If you’re a regular Food For Thought reader you’ve probably seen me mention sodium multiple times. “Choose low sodium items” or “Beware all the sodium in this product!” I figured it was probably time to talk about sodium and explain why I keep saying these things!
For those of us non-science folk, what is sodium?
Sodium, commonly known as table salt, primarily exists in food as NaCl (sodium chloride). It can also exist as sodium bicarbonate (a leavening agent), sodium nitrate (a preservative) and monosodium glutamate or MSG (a flavour enhancer).
Sodium is actually essential to our diet! It helps:
- Maintain fluid and electrolyte balance
- Assist nerve impulse transmission
- Improve muscle contraction
- Cells to absorb glucose
- To regulate blood pressure via changes in blood volume
So if it’s essential for our body, what’s the problem??
Well, like many others things, it is the amount of sodium we are getting this the issue.
Okay, so how much sodium should I be getting on a daily basis?
The adequate intake for men and women ages 19-50 years is 1500mg/day, with the tolerable upper limit (the absolute maximum) at 2300mg/day.
And how much are we actually getting?
The average Canadian consumes more than DOUBLE the tolerable upper limit! And get this; one teaspoon of salt is 2300mg. So if you’re shaking that little white dust all over your meal at dinner, chances are that you are definitely getting more than the maximum daily recommended sodium!!
What makes consuming all this sodium so bad?
High sodium intake:
- Causes bloating
- Causes dehydration when water is pulled from intracellular to extracellular environments to dilute the excess sodium
- May cause increased excretion of calcium, an important mineral for bone health
- May worsen high blood pressure. This is the biggest worry with high sodium intake as high blood pressure is a precursor to further heart disease or even stroke.
Well this is unsettling news! Where does all this salt in our diet come from?
Three quarters of our sodium intake comes from processed foods! Why? Well we actually read why above! Sodium is used as a preservative (to preserve all that processed food so it can withstand the weeks/months/years it sits on your pantry shelf before consumption) and as a flavor enhancer (so when you finally eat that year old can of spaghetti sauce, it tastes somewhat decent)!
In Canada, the two biggest contributors of sodium are (1) Bread and (2) Processed meats. I’ve already mentioned this in some of my posts on gluten, but as a society we eat a heck of a lot of bread, and unfortunately bread needs salt to bake properly.
Okay Food For Thought, how can I reduce my sodium intake?
- First and foremost, decrease your consumption of processed foods (meat, cheese, breads, frozen dinners, canned items, fast food etc.)
- Cook with little or no salt. Try preparing food with alternate flavorings (e.g. Mrs. Dash, nuts/seeds, citrus, other spices, etc.) and add little or ideally no salt to your prepared food!
- Decrease your intake of foods in brine (e.g. pickles, olives, sauerkraut)
- Decrease your intake of salty or smoked meat and fish
- Limit use of sauces like soy sauce, teriyaki, Worcestershire, etc. which are very high in sodium.
- Eat in! When you cook at home you have more control over the amount of sodium you eat.
- Read food labels and choose products with the lowest % DV for sodium (More info on reading food labels here!)
- Always, always, ALWAYS choose unsalted or low-sodium options when possible (e.g. “Low-Sodium Soup”, “Unsalted Crackers”, “Unsalted Nuts” etc)
What about “No Salt” or similar products? Are they better for us? How about sea salt?
Sea salt actually contains the same amount of sodium per mg as regular table salt, so it is unfortunately no better. The only difference between the two is that sea salt is more natural and less refined. Sodium-free salt substitutes like “No Salt” are made with potassium chloride, compared to sodium chloride (a.k.a salt). Too much potassium is actually harmful to individuals with heart or kidney problems, or who are on certain medications.
The ideal solution?
Simply toss the salt shaker altogether and experiment with other flavors and spices on your food!
Because my family eats little-to-no prepackaged food, or doesn’t cook with salt at all, when I eat away from home I can tell when there is salt in something. I become incredibly thirsty for the rest of the day, and I get ridiculously bloated. Sodium is an enemy – stay away!