Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt

man's hands adding salt to meat while cooking

How does sodium affect your health?

Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life. It’s regulated by your kidneys, and it helps control your body’s fluid balance. It also helps send nerve impulses and affects muscle function.

How does sodium affect my heart?

When there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount (volume) of blood inside them. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose — the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it.

Over time, high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of gunky plaque that can block blood flow. The added pressure tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body. And the extra water in your body can lead to bloating and weight gain.

High blood pressure is known as the “silent killer” because its symptoms are not always obvious. It’s one of the major risk factors for heart disease, the No. 1 killer worldwide.  Almost no one gets a free pass. Ninety percent of American adults are expected to develop high blood pressure over their lifetimes.

Did you know that sodium can affect your blood pressure even more dramatically if you’re sensitive to salt? Recent science explains that certain factors may influence how your blood pressure changes when you eat salt, such as:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Some medical conditions (like diabetes or chronic kidney disease)

Even if you don’t already have high blood pressure, eating less sodium can help blunt the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age.  It can also reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and even headaches.

Where does all the sodium come from?

Table salt is a combination of two minerals — about 40% sodium and 60% chloride.

Here are the approximate amounts of sodium in a given amount of salt:

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium
  • 1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium

More than 70% of the sodium we consume comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. The rest of the sodium in the diet occurs naturally in food (about 15 percent) or is added when we’re cooking food or sitting down to eat (about 11 percent).  So even if you never use the salt shaker, you’re probably getting too much sodium.

Because most of the sodium you eat is in your food before you buy it, it can be hard to limit how much you’re getting. But you deserve to choose how much sodium you eat. An AHA survey found that about three-quarters of adults in the U.S. prefer less sodium in processed and restaurant foods.

Learn about the sources of sodium in the American diet and food supply. And watch out for the Salty Six — the six common foods that add the most sodium to the diet.

What are the benefits of cutting down on sodium?

Eating less sodium can reduce your risk for high blood pressure and bloating,and stave off other effects of too much salt. And did you know that reducing sodium in the food supply could save money and lives?

One estimate suggested that if Americans moved to an average intake of 1,500 mg/day sodium, it could result in a 25.6 percent overall decrease in blood pressure and an estimated $26.2 billion in health care savings.

Another estimate projected that achieving this goal would reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease by anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 1.2 million over the next 10 years.

What are the FDA sodium targets?

The FDA and the AHA support volunteer sodium targets for the food industry. So what do they really mean for you?

Food manufacturing companies and restaurants that adopt the targets will lower the amount of sodium in their foods to meet the new targets. That means healthier foods for you and millions of other consumers. It’ll be easier to make the healthy choice.

Food companies and sodium reduction

Some food companies have already been working to reduce sodium in many of their products.

Is sodium really that bad? I’ve seen research that questions the connection between sodium and health problems.

The science behind sodium reduction is clear. Significant evidence links excess sodium intake with high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure.

While some newer research questions the link between sodium and health problems, the connection is well-established. The newer research adds to a larger discussion that has evolved over the last few years about salt intake but does not replace the existing evidence.

Still skeptical? Take a closer look at the science.

Much of the research that questions sodium intake and health problems relies on flawed data, including inaccurate measurements of sodium intake and an overemphasis on studying sick people rather than the general population. Often, the studies with paradoxical findings are poorly designed to examine the relationship between sodium intake and the health outcome of interest. The American Heart Association published a Science Advisory in February 2014 that discussed the problems with many of the studies that question how sodium is related to heart disease.

If most Americans lowered their sodium consumption to less than 1,500 mg per day, what’s the potential health impact?

We know we’d save money — and lives. One estimate suggested that if the U.S. population dropped its sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day, overall blood pressure could decrease by 25.6%, with an estimated $26.2 billion in health care savings. Another estimate projected that achieving this goal would reduce CVD deaths by anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 1.2 million over the next decade.

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