High blood pressure is a warning that you are headed toward heart disease. Learn about the link between sodium and blood pressure, and easy ways you can lower the sodium you are taking in.
Known as the “silent killer,” heart disease causes more deaths in the United States than any other medical condition. Around 655,000 lives in America are claimed by heart disease each year – or 25% of all deaths. Unhealthy eating can cause plaque to build up in the body’s artery walls, and as the blood vessels narrow and thicken, proper blood flow to organs and tissues is restricted. This causes blood pressure to rise, which increases the heart’s workload. If left uncontrolled, high blood pressure can eventually lead to heart failure, heart attack, and stroke.
Why your sodium intake matters
We need a small amount of sodium, or salt as we know it, to live on, but the typical American diet contains an excessive, unhealthy amount. This matters because ingesting too much sodium can cause blood pressure to elevate. A normal blood pressure is less than 120 mm Hg systolic and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic, so any levels above these thresholds may propel us onto a dangerous path toward heart disease. How much sodium is too much? The American Heart Association generally recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is equal to 1 tsp of salt, although most adults should ideally reach for a daily upper limit of 1,500 mg to prevent high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Where does sodium lurk?
The tricky thing about sodium is that it is often disguised within our foods, and if we are not paying close attention, we can easily misjudge how much we are taking in each day. The startling truth is that the average American eats more than 3,400 mg of sodium daily. Interestingly, the saltshaker on our table is not mostly to blame. More than 70% of our sodium comes from restaurant, prepared, and packaged foods. For example, just one slice of store-bought bread can provide up to 230 mg of sodium, a slice of pizza can have up to 760 mg of sodium, and one cup of canned chicken noodle soup can have up to 940 mg.
What about salt substitutes like potassium chloride?
The FDA recently encouraged food manufacturers to replace their products’ sodium chloride content with potassium chloride, a naturally occurring mineral salt. This would reduce consumers’ sodium intake while boosting potassium. While potassium chloride is generally considered safe, it is not safe for everyone. Those with kidney conditions or who are taking certain medications should first check with their doctor. When it comes to healthy eating, it is always your best bet to stick with whole, non-processed foods, which are naturally low in sodium.
Smart ways to reduce your daily sodium
Exceeding your daily sodium limit is easy to do if you are not watchful, and this can feel discouraging. But remember - it is never too late to start making positive changes to the way you eat, one small step at a time. Here are some tips to help you curb your sodium intake:
Þ Trick your tastebuds by swapping other flavors, herbs, and spices in place of salt on your plate. A splash of acid from foods like lemon or balsamic vinegar can really brighten and bring out the flavor of your food just as well as salt. Ground peppercorn, cumin, or a dash of cayenne can also add extra flavor.
Þ Bread products are surprisingly high in sodium. Forgo the morning bagel or toast and instead eat a filling bowl of oatmeal. Make your own whole-wheat pizza crust without the salt, and top it with a small amount of low-sodium cheese, sauce, and plenty of veggies.
Þ Keep away from excessively salty cheeses like feta and blue cheese and try low-sodium cheddar, ricotta, or goat cheese instead.
Þ Keep a rein on the amount of packaged, processed, and restaurant foods you consume. Deli meats, canned soups, chips, pretzels, and popcorn are notoriously high in salt. Eating mostly whole foods with little to no added salt is a dependable way to optimize your nutrition without sneaking excess sodium onto your plate.
Þ If you do buy packaged food, read the sodium content on its nutrition label. Pay attention to the package serving size, as sodium will be expressed per serving. Sodium adds up quickly when you overeat, so follow the serving size guideline carefully. Choose sodium-reduced or sodium-free foods when you can.
Þ Before dining out, check out the menu items’ nutrition information for their lower sodium options available. Many chefs will tweak your meal if you ask by leaving out high-salt items, or will grill or steam your food with no added sauces or seasonings by request. Boxing up half of your dish to finish the next day is a great way to ensure you are not overdoing it on the salt as well.