Everything You Need to Know About Sodium

Let’s talk about sodium. Many of us have a general idea that we should be watching how much we eat, but do you really know what it is – and how much is too much? The scary fact is, most Canadians are eating more than double the amount we need, every single day. So, what are the risks? And…how can we get that number lower? Read on to find out everything you need to know.

First things first. What is sodium? Many people think it’s just interchangeable with salt, but that’s not exactly true. Salt is made of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. So, a teaspoon of salt (5000 mg) gives you 2300 mg of sodium. And, as you’ll see…that is actually a lot.

Sodium intake has crept up in the Western diet thanks (or no thanks) to the increase in industrialized and processed foods. And this has led to higher blood pressure levels for many North Americans, causing an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks.

Here’s how it works. When we consume more salt than we need, our blood pressure rises to try and get that excess sodium and fluid out. It’s filtered by our kidneys and we expel it in our urine. No big deal, right? In perfect circumstances, it’s a well-oiled machine. But if our kidneys aren’t functioning at 100%, we accumulate that extra sodium and fluid, which leads to swelling. And, if we consistently eat an excess of sodium, our blood pressure stays in that heightened state, meaning extra work for your heart and blood vessels. Down the road, it’s pretty easy to see how that can damage your circulatory system.

So why don’t we cut it out? The simple fact is, we’ve developed a taste for salty foods – in a big way. For major food manufacturers, cutting salt means cutting sales. In fact, 75% of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods. So, right now we eat an average of about 3400 mg of sodium a day – significantly more than the recommended maximum of 2300 mg…and much, much higher than the 1500 mg limit dietitians and health professionals wish we’d stick to. For reference, 1500 mg is about 0.75 teaspoons of salt. Doesn’t seem like much, does it?

That said, sodium isn’t necessary public enemy #1 when it comes to high blood pressure. Other lifestyle choices like eating processed foods, obesity, lack of exercise and high alcohol intake might have an even bigger effect on heart health. So as with so many other things, a common-sense diet and lifestyle are a great place to start. Keeping that in mind, does reducing sodium intake really keep blood pressure down? Studies show that if you lower your sodium intake to less than 2400 mg a day, your blood pressure can drop by up to 8 points. Then, if you eat plant foods rich in potassium, get regular exercise, and minimize alcohol consumption, that number can go up to 47 points! Not too shabby.

But before you start throwing out all the salt and soy sauce in your house, you should know that you do need some sodium in your diet to live. Sodium is an electrolyte essential to keep your internal fluid balance and your nerves, muscles and heart working properly – among countless other important functions. But the amount you really need is a mere 500 mg per day. You can get that just from eating a balanced diet of unprocessed plant and animal-based foods, without even adding extra salt.

Here are some tips for keeping your sodium intake in check. It’s easier than you might think!

– When you’re buying vegetables, stick to fresh and frozen – not canned.

– Read the labels! Look for products with 15% of your daily recommended value of sodium or less

– For a snack, try unsalted nuts or popcorn instead of chips or crackers.

– Try and cut back on high-sodium condiments like relish, soy sauce, ketchup and mustard.

– When you’re making beans or legumes, try to cook from dried or look for low-sodium canned varieties.

– Make your own chicken or vegetable stock, or look for low-sodium versions.

– Try seasoning your meals with other flavour enhancers like herbs, spices, garlic, onions and/or lemon juice before adding salt.

So that’s just one more reason it’s a good idea to eat unprocessed, whole foods as much as you possibly can. Stick to a balanced diet with lots of plant-based foods, and you don’t really need to get nervous about sprinkling some salt on your plate for added flavor. But if you’re eating a lot of processed foods with added salt, sodium intake is one of many great reasons to try and make a change.