Time and time again, heart doctors and the government recommendations have warned us about eating too much salt. They say eating too much salt can cause high blood pressure - putting people at risk for heart-related problems.
Unfortunately, 89% of Americans consume more than the daily sodium limit every day.
Related - Sodium Intake for Athletes
So eating less salt is the answer, right?
While eating too much sodium is a problem I'll touch on later, I think the reason there's some mixed messages about the dangers of sodium. Some studies, including a recent one, suggest that people who eat more sodium are no worse off than others.
Doctors' advice about cutting back our salt intake stems mostly from data on people who already have high blood pressure, or hypertension. For these people, lowering their salt intake will dramatically reduce their blood pressure.
Like I said, most of the evidence that we have studied people who have high blood pressure. Since there's less evidence in healthy people, there are two main outcomes when restricting your sodium intake.
- Some data shows that eating less salt can lead to a lower blood pressure in healthy individuals.
- Some experts are beginning to think that healthy individuals (those without high blood pressure) do not have such a direct effect on blood pressure when lowering salt intake.
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What Does Sodium Do for Our Bodies?
If you don't really know what sodium does for your body - they make it sound like eating something with some seasoning will kill you... Right?
Salt is something that is essential for life. Our kidneys regulate it in our body and it helps control your body's fluid balance. This is generally why you bloat after eating something heavy in sodium.
On top of that, sodium sends impulses and affects our muscle function. There's a reason Gatorade and other electrolyte drinks are out there.
Oh yeah, sodium is one of 7 of the compounds considered to be electrolytes. The others are potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate.
How Does Sodium Even Affect Blood Pressure?
Sodium in your bloodstream pulls water into your blood vessels. Since there's now the water in the blood, your blood pressure is raised.
It's similar to a garden hose - the pressure in the hose increases as you push more water through it.
This is what causes the blood vessel walls to get injured and it can speed up the plaque buildup.
So Does Restricting Sodium Actually Lower Your Blood Pressure?
I mean the information is out there that lowering your salt intake can help. Also, since 89% of Americans are eating too much salt - it really shouldn't even be a question.
Current sodium guidelines recommend eating less than 2,300 mg a day.
Boston University studied more than 2,600 people enrolled in the Framingham Offspring Study. This is a well-respected dataset that involves the children of the Framingham Heart Study.
This study has provided much of the information on heart disease risk that many doctors follow today. This study asked people to record their diet and take blood pressure measurements every four years over a 16-year period.
Funny enough, the people who actually followed the current sodium guidelines had slightly higher blood pressure on average than those who consumed more. This particular study was not designed to track how their salt intake correlated with any health outcomes such as heart events.
Lynn Moore was the professor who lead this study. Moore says "that surprising finding doesn't mean that sodium has nothing to do with blood pressure."
There is a possibility that there's another nutrient that could be more important to consider when controlling blood pressure.
Moore found that people who had high levels of potassium, coming from foods like bananas, tend to lower your blood pressure readings - regardless of how much salt they ate.
This is called the sodium/potassium balance.
Decreasing your sodium intake alongside increasing your potassium intake can help control blood pressure, lower your risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
Studies show that older people and those with high blood pressure notice the biggest benefits from restricting sodium.
Potassium, on the other hand, will lower your blood pressure. If you do not have an adequate potassium level, that will raise your blood pressure.
Before you give me that "I don't know what foods have potassium..." crap, here's a decent list to get you started. If you don't start eating some of these foods, it's your own fault.
Here's your tl;dr for those impatient ones - Avocado, Banana, Potato, Spinach, Beans, Fish.
Without making the list too big, here are some of my personal favorites along with some other great suggestions. I don't like grapefruit, but it's great fruit.
Of course, you have your bananas and avocados. Fruit juice from prunes, grapes, grapefruit, oranges, pineapples, or vegetable juices are all great for potassium.
Enjoy some dried fruits like apricots and peaches. Grapes, grapefruit (yuck), oranges, nectarines, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapples, and watermelon are all refreshing and will help with potassium levels.
Vegetables and Beans
Potatoes are great for you... they don't always have to be cut and deep fried.
Beet greens, squash, spinach, Swiss chard, and tomatoes are all unique flavors and can make a great dish. Add some artichokes, beets, broccoli, bok choy, Brussel's sprouts, cabbage, celery, or mushrooms to many dishes to increase your overall health.
While I'm all for making some orange beef with some scallion and garlic jasmine rice and some steamed vegetables, sometimes a steak is more fun.
Salmon, cod, halibut, pollock, sardines, tuna, clams, and oysters are all a great protein source packed with potassium.
Milk, yogurt, beef, bison, goat, and pork all contain a fair amount of potassium and other beneficial nutrients.
If you like seafood like me, you'll see that most of the fish we like are full of potassium.
Some others that are great sources are haddock, mackerel, perch, crab, mussels, shrimp, and squid.
And that's it - make better food choices, eat some fresh fruits and veggies, and enjoy a healthier blood pressure.
Biggest Sodium Offenders
Most of our sodium intake comes from the salt added to processed foods, beverages, and restaurant foods.
All of those ready-to-eat just "pop it in the microwave" type foods are what's really adding to your overconsumption of sodium.
Between the preservatives and the flavor enhancers to make the sub-par quality whatever-it-is taste better, a lot of foods pack a punch when it comes to its sodium content.
Common Processed Foods That Are High in Sodium Include:
- All those baked goods - you know, bread, buns.
- Processed cheese - I still don't know how Cheese Whiz is legal. Seriously, 1 serving is 1705 mg of sodium.
- Lunch meats.
- Box meals.
- Snack foods - chips, some crackers.
- Soups - many canned or powdered.
Generally, anything that's cheap and convenient.
5 Tips for Ditching the Salt
Try some herbs and spices
Grab up that spare change you have and run to the dollar store. There will be a section full of $1 bottles of herbs and spices. Buy all of them.
Once you find flavors you like, go buy it fresh and add it to your dishes.
Using garlic and onion powder as a base for many dishes will improve the flavor without packing a lot of sodium.
Find the most local-grown, organic foods you can
While this one is a bit more cost-intensive side of the tips, you have to look at your health like this - is saving that extra 2 buying the processed foods worth it?
Local-grown organic foods have the highest nutritional content, they have the most flavor, and they provide your body with what it needs.
I recently took my own advice and went down to a butcher that is down the street from me and I will never, ever buy chicken breast from anywhere else.
Invest in good quality foods and your body and taste buds will thank you.
Ditched processed crap
Sodium is in everything - condiments, beverages, frozen foods, and canned foods - just to name a few.
Check out your nutrition labels before you buy something. You'll be terrified when you start realizing what you're actually eating.
Many canned foods are canned to be preserved. The juice is filled with sodium and other preservatives. This is why you should rinse off canned foods - like beans - before you cook them.
Add some heat
Adding some heat adds a completely new element to your dish.
Next time you can, add some cayenne, chili peppers, red pepper flakes, or even jalapenos to your dish.
Check with your doctor before you start going overboard on the heat. Don't worry, you can still put Mike's on everything.
Boost your dishes' acid profile
If you don't know how or aren't very good at cooking yet, this may not mean anything to you... but I do have a good example.
Do you like tacos? Real tacos... You know, corn tortilla, cilantro, onion, lime wedge. Do you squeeze lime juice on your taco?
If you do, you are raising the acid profile. I've been personally using more vinegar - rice wine and red wine - and other citrus juices in my dishes. A splash of lemon, lime, or orange juice can brighten up a dish.