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Finding the balance with salt

06.23.14 |

Is salt good or bad for us?

This is a question that pops up a lot in medical circles and among the general public. Despite the mounds of research conducted on sodium and some ancient practices pointing to sodium’s potentially deadly effects, it seems that many people are still unclear about how to treat this nutrient.

Do I need to cut back? How much salt is too much? Should I eliminate salt from my diet entirely?

Like anything else, sodium is necessary for us to function properly, but it must be consumed in moderation.

This is the key. Even vital nutrients like Vitamin D and healthy living staples like water can cause serious complications or death when consumed in excess, and sodium is no different. The American Heart Association ideally recommends 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for a healthy, happy heart. That’s roughly 3/5 of a teaspoon of table salt (which is approximately 40 percent sodium by weight) every day. Going beyond that recommendation will cause your body to hold excess fluid, putting significant strain on your heart in the process.

“There are so few people consuming 2,300 milligrams that it’s a great interim goal,” said  Lawrence Appel, M.D., director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “If everyone reduced their daily sodium intake to 2300, I would click my heels. If we got people to 1,500, I’d click twice.”

According to the American Heart Association, we don’t follow this guideline. The average person consumes 3,400 mg of sodium per day, more than double the daily recommendation of 1,500.

How do we cut back?

So how do we cut back? The best way to start is by eating more fresh, unprocessed foods, especially fruits and vegetables. According to the AHA, processed foods—those quick snacks you pick up at a gas station or a fast-food drive thru—contribute to 75 percent of the sodium in our diets, or 2,550 mg of the overblown 3,400 mg per day the average citizen consumes. On top of this, avoid eating out except for special occasions or treats. Do not make a habit of going to your favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner.

Restaurant food is loaded with extra sodium. It tastes good, and while it’s nice to enjoy a freshly prepared meal away from home, the ill effects these sodium-packed dishes have on our bodies is not worth it.

To illustrate, one order of boneless buffalo wings from Chili’s contains 3,640 mg of sodium—and that’s not even the menu’s worst offender. This isn’t a knock specifically on Chili’s; almost every restaurant is guilty of loading their meals with sodium, inviting patrons in with tasty but destructive entrees and appetizers.

If you make your health a priority through the Habits of Health, the decision is easy. You’ll know that an order of Texas Cheese Fries is simply not worth the elevated blood pressure and overall health risk, and you’ll choose freshly prepared, low-sodium meal options.

That said, sodium is an important electrolyte, and it is vital to our overall wellbeing. You can’t eliminate it entirely—doing so is just as hazardous as overloading. When consumed in the proper amounts, sodium controls blood pressure and keeps our muscles and nerve pathways functioning properly. If you eat a healthy diet consisting of fresh fruits and veggies, unsalted nuts, and unprocessed chicken and fish, you will ingest all the sodium you need without going overboard and stressing out your body.

Make it a priority to cut out the unnecessary sodium in your life. Your heart depends on it. In health,