Who doesn’t love some wonderfully salty pretzels or mixed nuts with some chilled beer at the end of a brutal week at work? Or some hot wings, french fries, or tortilla chips with cheesy dips while watching Monday night football? Delicious and comforting as these foods may sound, they are laden with enormous amounts of salt. And it’s not just these so-called “junk” foods that are high in salt. Even everyday food products such as lunch/deli meats, poultry, and salad dressings have way too much salt. Why is this bad? Because too much salt/sodium poses a number of health risks.
What Happens If You Eat Too Much Salt?
As per research cited by the Centers for Disease Control, there is a “close-dependent relationship” between too much salt intake and high blood pressure.1 Consuming high amounts of sodium makes our bodies retain water in our bloodstream and that raises the volume of blood in our bodies. This leads to high blood pressure (hypertension), which
Hypertension and prehypertension also increase the chances of suffering heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, and eye problems.3 And if that’s not worrisome enough, the American Institute for Cancer Research holds that high salt intake is a likely cause of stomach cancer.4
Other studies have shown that high sodium levels can cause cognitive decline in older adults.5
But Isn’t Sodium A Key Nutrient?
Yes, it is. But you only need a small amount of sodium in your daily diet to derive its benefits. Optimal sodium levels help regulate blood pressure and blood volume in your body and keep your nerves and muscles working the way they should.6
That said, we’re eating too much of it. The CDC estimates that 90 percent of all Americans are eating too much sodium and that most of it come from eating pre-packaged, highly processed foods (65 percent) and meals at restaurants (25 percent).7 Contrary to popular belief, this means only a very small amount of our daily sodium
How Much Salt Is Okay?
The FDA recommends that adults (men and women) eat no more than 2300 mg of salt per day, which is roughly 1 tsp of salt. How much are we actually consuming? A whopping 3400 mg a day!8
Even 90 percent of all kids are consuming excessive amounts of salt, as per the American Heart Association, and the main contributors to their high-salt diets are pizzas, burritos, sandwiches, bread, cured meats, and soups.9 The AHA cautions that children who eat a high-sodium diet are about 40 percent more likely to have higher blood pressure and that puts them at risk for developing heart disease early on in life.10
Children can become easily conditioned to high-salt tastes and so it’s important to help them develop healthy eating habits specifically pertaining to salt. Model healthy eating habits, give them low-salt foods from an early age, and offer fruits and vegetables as snacks.
Symptoms Of Too Much Salt Intake
Your body will give you several telltale signs that you’re eating too much salt:
1. Feeling Thirsty And Dehydrated All The Time
This is the most obvious of all the signs. We don’t realize it but our bodies work hard and self-regulate to maintain optimal sodium levels. When we eat too much salt, we throw off this balance, and our brain triggers the feeling of thirst to encourage us to drink more water, thereby restoring optimal sodium levels.11
2. Increased Water Retention
When high levels of sodium enter your bloodstream, the body retains as much water as possible to dissolve all that sodium. This means your kidneys will produce less urine and various parts of your
3. High Blood Pressure
If you suffer from high blood pressure (hypertension), high dietary sodium is a likely cause. Too much salt increases your blood volume and all that extra blood causes extra stress on your heart and arteries. What’s more, salt can also interfere with medications (e.g., ACE inhibitors) that treat hypertension.13 Unfortunately, since hypertension doesn’t usually have any symptoms, people can go years without realizing that they suffer from high blood pressure. Your physician can order lab work including blood tests to determine your sodium levels and should also be checking your blood pressure even during routine appointments.
4. Kidney Stones
High salt consumption increases the level of calcium in your urine, which
Recent studies indicate that high salt intake could increase the risk of obesity in some people. The reasons aren’t yet all clear but one argument is that eating too much salt makes you thirsty. However, instead of drinking water, you may reach out for a snack (mistaking the thirst for hunger) or for sugar-sweetened beverages. You will thus be consuming far more calories than your body needs. It has even been observed that an increase of 1 gram per day of salt intake can translate to an increased intake of 27 grams per day of sugar-sweetened beverage among children and adolescents.15 And, of course, if you eat too much processed, pre-packaged store-bought food or tend to eat out a lot (say, a hotdog
A high-salt diet can also cause gastritis, increase the chances of developing atrophic gastritis, and even cause gastric tumors. High salt intake promotes colonization of the stomach by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria and this can cause and worsen gastritis. If unchecked, it can lead to gastric tumors too.16
How Do You Cut Down On Salt?
The first step is to be aware and take notice of the foods that are the biggest salt culprits. As per the CDC, 10 types of foods account for about 40 percent of people’s sodium consumption.17 These are bread and rolls, deli meat, pizza, cheese, poultry, soup, pasta, sandwiches, meat dishes like meatloaf, snacks like popcorn and chips.
There is no need to eliminate these items from your diet altogether but it is recommended that we eat smaller portions of these foods. In addition to eating less of these foods, try the following ideas to further cut down on salt:
- When shopping at the grocery store, read nutrition labels carefully and choose low-sodium versions of your favorite foods.
- Buy fresh ingredients and make your own meals. With our busy lifestyles, many of us don’t have the time to cook meals from scratch. But the fewer pre-packaged and pre-processed ingredients in your meals, the lower your salt intake and healthier your meals. In fact, studies show that people who cooked meals at home tend to eat healthier and consume fewer calories overall!18
- Look for other ways to flavor your food. You may not always be able to substitute salt in your dishes, but there are plenty of opportunities when you can use no-salt seasonings, herbs, and spices to add flavor to your food.
- Rinse canned food thoroughly before using them. This gets rid of some of the salt used as a preservative.
- When eating at restaurants, ask for your food to be prepared with low (or no) salt and if eating a salad, ask for the dressing on the side.
- Eat foods rich in potassium. Potassium can counter some of the negative effects of too much salt in the diet.19 So load up on bananas, spinach, tomatoes, avocados, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, salmon, beans, beets, broccoli, and clams if you’re looking to quickly reverse the damage brought about by too much salt.
Cutting down on salt is hard, even if you’re highly motivated because our bodies naturally crave all things salty and savory. The idea, however, is to gradually lower your salt intake so that you don’t feel as though you’re losing out on flavor. And there’s good news: research shows that our taste buds aren’t sensitive enough to perceive a small (30 percent) reduction in salt intake!20 And with time and more attention to your meals, you can train your taste buds to not rely solely on salt for flavor.
|↑1||Sodium: The Facts. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.|
|↑2, ↑6, ↑8, ↑19||Sodium in Your Diet: Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce Your Intake. US Food and Drug Administration.|
|↑3||Hypertensive heart disease. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑4||Health Risks and Disease Related to Salt and Sodium. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.|
|↑5||Older adults with too much salt in diet and too little exercise
|↑7, ↑17||Nine in 10 U.S. adults get too much sodium every day. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention.|
|↑9||Salty Six for Kids Infographic. American Heart Association.|
|↑11||Why Salt Makes You Thirsty. Indiana University.|
|↑12||Sodium (Chloride). Linus Pauling Institute.|
|↑13||How to avoid the health risks of too much salt. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑14||5 steps for preventing kidney stones. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑15||Ma, Yuan, Feng J. He, and Graham A. MacGregor. “High Salt Intake.” Hypertension (2015): HYPERTENSIONAHA-115.|
|↑16||Fox, James G., Charles A. Dangler, Nancy S. Taylor, Amy King, Theodore J. Koh, and Timothy C. Wang. “High-salt diet induces gastric epithelial hyperplasia and parietal cell loss, and enhances Helicobacter pylori colonization in C57BL/6 mice.” Cancer research 59, no. 19 (1999): 4823-4828.|
|↑18||Study Suggests Home Cooking is a Main Ingredient in Healthier Diet. Johns Hopkins University.|
|↑20||Take Action: How to Reduce Your Sodium Intake. Harvard University.|