What is so BAD About Sodium?

Yo!

Hope you’re doing well.

Over the next few weeks I have some really cool stuff to show you. I’m going to reveal exactly what’s so BAD about some of the baddest nutrient culprits!

It’s time to open up the curtains!

This week I’m kicking things off with sodium – the baddest of the bad (well, you be the judge).

We hear a lot of talk about sodium these days and you’re often warned to lower your sodium intake. Why is this?

What is so BAD about sodium?

After all, sodium is essential for survival. The body needs sodium to function properly. All of the sodium that we consume comes from salt, or chemically known as sodium chloride – really an essential mineral. So the question becomes not whether we need it, but how much of it do we need?

Sodium helps regulate fluids and blood pressure in your body. It helps transmit nerve impulses that allow muscles to move and contract.  It also helps with digestion as it transports essential nutrients to the bloodstream. Practically every cell in your body requires a little bit of sodium to function properly. And as it is continuously excreted via sweat (and other mediums), sodium needs to be consistently replenished.

So how much sodium do we need?

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends the following sodium intake based on your age group:

Age Recommended Sodium Intake
1 to 3 1000 mg
4 to 8 1200 mg
9 to 50 1500 mg
51 to 70 1300 mg
70+ 1200 mg

How much is this? Here’s a quick reference:

1 teaspoonful contains about 6 grams of salt
6 grams of salt contains about 2400 mg of sodium

The IOM has also set the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), which is the highest intake level that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects, at 2,300mg of sodium per day. Adults are not recommended to exceed this.

How much do we really consume?

Recent data from a 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey found shocking results in sodium consumption. Here were the official numbers from the study:

Age Recommended Sodium Intake ACTUAL Sodium Intake
1 to 3 1000 mg 2000 mg
4 to 8 1200 mg 2700 mg
9 to 50 1500 mg 3300 mg
51 to 70 1300 mg 3000 mg
70+ 1200 mg 2500 mg

As you can see, Canadian adults consumed an average of over 3,000 mg of sodium per day, more than double the level recommended and considerably higher than the UL.

What can excess sodium to your body?

So we know that sodium is necessary for the body to function properly. But like everything else in life, too much can cause problems.

The truth of the matter is, any excess sodium can disrupt normal functions within the body. It does so by restricting the necessary fluid transfers to various systems and organs in your body.

The main victim is also the most important – your heart. Increased levels of sodium in the body cause veins and arteries to constrict, making it difficult for the heart to efficiently pump blood through your body.  This often leads to hypertension, or more commonly known as high blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the major causes of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.

Another effect of excess sodium in your system is weight gain. Here’s the problem. Your body processes only as much sodium as it needs. Any excess sodium is stored in your fat cells and other organs for later use. But since sodium is a highly soluble substance in nature, it forces your body to retain additional fluids as it tries to dissolve and process the sodium. Queue in the weight gain.

Who is at fault?

Recent studies done by Statistic’s Canada revealed the following as the biggest suspects:

  • Processed foods are responsible for 77% of total sodium intake
  • Pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs are responsible for 19.1% of total sodium intake
  • Other sources responsible for high intake of sodium: soups, pasta, dairy products

As the general population settles for pre-packaged, ready-to-eat foods, the level of sodium consumption continues to grow. Foods at restaurants, especially at fast food places, typically contain extremely high levels of sodium.

Here’s the kicker.

According to a study reported in Medical Hypothesis, high-sodium foods may stimulate your brain’s pleasure center, leading to an addiction to salty snacks. Salty foods apparently activate the release of opioids linked with reward. So your brain needs more and more sodium to produce the same pleasure, thus increasing your craving.

The food industry uses this to their advantage. They load foods with sodium to enhance the flavor, get you addicted and keep you coming back.

What can you do to limit your intake?

Lowering your sodium intake takes some work. At first, your food won’t taste the same. You’ll find it less flavorful. That’s ok. Stick with it for a few weeks. Your taste buds will adjust and you’ll begin to see that food has natural flavors of its own. Think of it as a cleansing process.

Here are three simple tips to help you limit your sodium intake:

1) Learn to read food labels

Now that you understand how much sodium you should be consuming daily, you need to learn to gauge how much sodium there is in certain foods. I’m not saying you have to memorize how many milligrams of sodium there is in everything you eat, but it’s important to have a general understanding of how much sodium is in the foods you are eating.

Majority of food products are required to have a Nutrition Facts Label. Sodium content per serving is on there. When purchasing pre-prepared foods from the freezer section or canned goods aisle, take note of the sodium content. When you do this you’ll quickly realize how loaded certain foods are with sodium.

Here are some other sodium-related terms typically used on food packaging:

Sodium-free means less than 5mg/serving
Very low sodium means 35mg or less/serving
Low sodium means 145mg or less/serving
Reduced sodium means 75% reduction in sodium content from original
Unsalted, no salt added, or without salt means the food was processed without salt when salt would normally be used in processing.

Keep track of labels. They’ll help you eliminate foods with high sodium content and discover low-sodium alternatives.

2) Make healthy food choices.

Remember that the food industry thrives on your cravings and addictions.

Escape the system.

Processed foods – basically anything in a box or a bag – are loaded with sodium because not only does it make the food taste better, but it helps preserve foods longer.

Stay away from these. Frozen dinners, pre-packaged meals, and bagged snacks have enough sodium to suffice a small village.

Be smart about the foods you’re putting into your body.

And remember that just because something says “low calorie” or “low fat” doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy choice. Manufacturers use sodium to replace the loss of flavor that is caused by the removal of fat. Be aware of these terms. If it’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Stick with “fresh”. If you stay in the fresh produce section, you won’t have to do any label reading at all. Maximize your time here and minimize your time in the processed-foods section.

3) Limit going out to eat

Restaurants only stay in business if they can have their customers coming back. What better way to retain customers than to make their foods super tasty (and addictive).

Sodium content in restaurant foods is typically high. Check out the 30 saltiest foods in America

If you can, limit eating out. Opt for home cooked meals. This is the best way to control what you’re putting inside your body.

If eating out is your thing, then my advice is to check out the restaurants nutrition information (most restaurants have it online) before visiting the place. Look at the sodium content of your favorite foods. Pretty excessive I bet.

Choose the foods with lower sodium content. If there’s no low-sodium options (that’s not a good sign), then ask the server to minimize the salt content in your food.

Fast foods should be completely avoided. These foods are high in more than just fat. The majority of fast foods contain more than your daily recommended intake of sodium in a SINGLE serving.

Minimize eating out. Save your money and save your health.

What are your thoughts on sodium? Do you have any simple tips for limiting your sodium consumption? Share in the comments below.

34 thoughts on “What is so BAD About Sodium?”

  1. Excellent I think we incidentally get too much salt in all foods especially the premade, tinned or anything comes along in a bag, box or container.
    It can as you indicated work the other way .. I’m low on salt, cause I exercise so much and only drink plain water I lose a lot in sweat etc so my doctor told me to add it into all my foods and even water .. the lack of salt is stopping correct cells from functioning but overall we do get too much salt.
    Raymond

    1. Raymond, it’s interesting you point that out. The reality is that not getting enough sodium is just as dangerous as getting too much. Low blood pressure, dizziness, and even stroke are some of the consequences.

      But, in the world that we live in, excess sodium is one of the biggest problems we’re facing and this is simply because we’re not aware of it. It’s good to have a general understanding of sodium and how it affects the body.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Sodium, sodium, sodium. It is hard to avoid it but definitely easy to reduce it.
    High blood pressure runs in my family and I have had brushes with it in the past. A little over a decade ago when I was not working out and really watching my diet.

    Ever since I became committed to staying fit and active, and yes, keeping my sodium levels low my high blood pressure has not come back.

    Sodium is one dangerous little thing if you do not use is moderation. I also want to mention that a lot of times people will say things like, “I feel bloated,” after having eaten a high sodium food.
    Just something to think about.

    -Sam

    1. It’s good to hear that you’ve made the right (and necessary) changes.

      The truth is that not a lot of people are aware of the amount of sodium they’re actually consuming. They feel the symptoms (like the bloated feeling you mentioned), but they don’t understand what has caused it.

      Like I said to Raymond, I think it’s important that we have a general understanding of this mineral and what it does to our body so we can moderate our consumption of it.

  3. Srdjan,

    Sodium seems to be one of those ingredients that doesn’t get as much bad press as some of the others (cholesterol, trans fats, carbs). This post really put it into perspective. It’s just like anything else – in moderation it’s ok, but in excess it’s harmful. Eating natural, unprocessed foods and staying away from frozen meals and junk food should help you sufficiently reduce your sodium intake to recommended levels.

    Alykhan

    1. You bring up a good point man. Why is all the focus placed on cholesterol, trans fats, etc.? Why does sodium get ignored when the effects on the body are clear? Maybe there’s not as much money in promoting ‘low-sodium’ foods as there is with ‘low-cholesterol’ or ‘low-fat’ foods. I’m not sure. What do you think?

      At the consumer level, I think it’s important that we always keep sodium in mind to ensure we make healthy choices.

  4. Srdjan,
    Great post again! When I was at the Robb Wolf Paleo Seminar on the weekend, there were a few interesting questions about sodium intake, and he had equally interesting responses.
    The Paleo Diet is based on eliminating grains, dairy, and legumes. Robb Wolf includes salt as an acceptable spice for meals, but cautioned against over consumption. He felt that committing to a life changing diet was tough for most people and asking them to give up salt is a deal breaker! He said that people would be better off just ditching the grains and dairy as a means to optimal heart health.

    He obviously has an interesting perspective, however he still didn’t say sodium is acceptable to consume at the levels you described in this post. Unbelievable what us Canucks are taking in!

    Cheers,
    Jordan

    1. I know we live in the same area so I’m curious where was this seminar held?

      Very interesting perspective to say the least. Salt should definitely be an acceptable spice for meals, but only in the right quantities. The problem is people don’t have a clue of how much they’re consuming (and how much they SHOULD be consuming), so it turns into an excessive habit. Just look at that table I posted. Canadians are consuming DOUBLE their recommended amount!

      Any other interesting moments happen at the seminar that you’d care to share?:)

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Srdjan,

    I’m sure money has something to do with it, but also that low sodium has never really reached the level of “fad diet” quite like low fat or low carb. I’m sure if it were, then this would change and you’d see more low sodium options popping up everywhere.

    Alykhan

    1. You’re right in saying that things would be different if low-sodium reached the level of ‘fad diet’. We’d definitely be seeing more low-sodium products.

      But why has it not reached that level yet? Having considered all the side effects of consuming too much sodium, why has nothing being done?

      It boggles my mind!

    1. Anything with the words low-fat, low-calorie, low-cholesterol sell like crazy. People go crazy for that…they think it’s healthier. But they don’t realize (or choose not to realize) what these foods actually consist of.

      I think we just need to be a little bit smarter about the foods we choose to purchase and put in our mouth.

  6. There were a few interesting moments actually. One in which he sort of debunked a chapter of The 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferris (but then made it clear that they are actually buddies). People were also very curious about issues concerning infants, and their diets. Overall it was very interesting stuff. It was in Toronto to answer your original question. I just wrote a post about the experience so you can check out more details on my site if you are interested.

    Cheers,
    Jordan

    p.s. next time we can car pool!

    1. Man I wish I had known about this. What chapter did he debunk? I’ve read the book and absolutely love it.

      I’ll make sure to check out your post in detail.

      And definitely car pool next time!:)

  7. I just lent my copy of the 4 hour body to a friend! Robb basically tore apart the science behind the grape seed (juice or something like that) intake before a carb binge. Tim claimed that consuming this substance would trick the body to redirect all calories (sugar) to the liver and the body would not react as it normally would.

    Robb basically said this will work if we want to trick a blood glucose test, but the effect on our body is brutal. He said that the sugar that goes into the liver will come out eventually as fat.

    I thought that was pretty interesting, but more interesting that the two of them had a lengthy conversation about it, and Tim gave in…and is mostly Paleo now.

    1. There are a lot of things in that book that are really hard to wrap your head around. I’ve talked to some friends (trainers) about various topics (like geek to freak) and it seems like a lot of people are tearing it up. But I guess the only way to find out is to try it yourself and see if it works.

      I wish I had a chance to sit down with Tim and have a conversation about all the things he’s done!:)

  8. Salt and sugar have always been my two vices. I’m doing a good job kicking the sugar habit but salty foods still get me. I’ve been trying to avoid adding extra salt to anything but the craving seems to run through my entire family. I’m confident in time that I can break this bad habit. Fortunately a lot of the foods I eat don’t have a lot of excess sodium so I don’t think I’m too far away from the recommended guidelines. It’s just when I go crazy, I go overboard!

    1. That’s just what it is, Dave – a bad habit. And it can be broken. Salty foods are addictive so it’s no surprise that it becomes a craving. Just remember that the addiction can be broken. It just takes a little bit of dedication. Your taste buds eventually adapt.

  9. If you eat whole, natural food and add salt to salads and cooked meals and workout regularly, no worry about salt intake. I am also low blood pressure person and found that in days I put more salt on meals is when my blood pressure is lower. So you have to listen to your body but it needs years of practice and you need to clean your food to simple meals with less ingredients (no sauce, toppings and packed food)

    1. It’s true that if you eat whole, natural foods (with no salt added), your overall sodium intake will be relatively low. But the majority of people’s diets consists of some form of processed foods which are packed with sodium. And the majority of people simply aren’t aware of this.

      And yes it does come down to listening to your body. We are all different and our bodies react differently to excess sodium.

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. Srdjan,

    Great post. Those statistics are pretty shocking. I gave up salt when I was 14 and still never add it to food. I also eat as little processed food as possible and prepare all of my meals yet I’m pretty sure I’m getting more than enough sodium each day. Surprising it hasn’t got as much bad press as sugar.

    1. It’s nice to see that you got your sodium levels under control! Wish I could say the same for everyone else.

      It really is surprising that salt hasn’t gotten as much bad press as sugar. I’m doing an upcoming post on it so I hope that might clear things up!

  11. This is the site that I am looking for the long time. You give me lots of information about the food we usually eat that has some certain danger to our health. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  12. I think it’s okay to take in sodium but in a regulated amount. Sodium is a substance found in almost all commercial food products nowadays. Whether we like it or not, Sodium will always be a part of our diet. The challenge is to take only the amount needed per day.

      1. Basically, I avoid eating too much junk food like potato chips, etc. Instead, I eat mostly fruits and vegetables as part of my diet. Instead of taking up soda, I choose tea. 🙂 Instead of eating on restaurants, I cook my own meal just to make sure that all the ingredients are friendly to my system.

        I hope that helped. 🙂

  13. Thank you for the great information. I have been taking to my husband a lot about wanting to eat healthier and be more aware of what we are putting into our bodies. I will bookmark your blog, as I can see it will be a great recourse for me.

  14. Hi Srdjan,
    If I am eating chips (french fries here) I have to have salt on them, why??? I don’t know!
    So now, I have started sprinkling Turmuric on them, maybe it’s just the fact that I am sprinkling something on them, the brain is happy to be fooled, so this is the healthier option for me. I don’t have them very often, perhaps once a month, but others might like to try it too, or their favourite herb. Tania 🙂

    1. Hey Tania! There are definitely a lot of psychological factors at play. I think it simply comes down to habits. If you can force yourself not to sprinkle anything a few times, you’ll see how quickly that desire to do so will disappear.

      But I still think Turmeric is better than salt 🙂

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