Do You Eat Too Much Salt?
Although we tend to use the words "sodium" and "salt" as though they are the same thing, they are actually different. The table salt that we invariably think of as salt is actually sodium chloride. We need some sodium in our diets to transport nutrients around the body, transmit nerve impulses and contract muscles, especially the heart. Problems arise when we eat too much sodium. Although sodium is required for your body to function efficiently, you need it to be combined with potassium, calcium and magnesium for it to have the desired effect. The amount of sodium that we actually need to consume in order to survive is only 500 mg per day, and most of us far exceed that amount. In other words, we eat much more sodium than is strictly necessary. In fact, the average American can eat as much as ten times that amount in a single day. We are always being told about the consequences of eating too much sodium in our diets, but what exactly are the dangers?
Too much sodium can cause you to retain water, which causes bloating. Water retention is also a problem for those with high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a contributing factor to strokes and heart disease. The recommended amount of sodium varies between countries, but in America, most experts recommend eating between 1,500 mg and 2,300 mg of sodium each day. You might think that this is simply a case of not putting extra sodium on your food, but as most of our food already contains added sodium, it is all too easy to eat far more sodium than you realize. What kinds of health problems can you expect if you eat too much sodium?
1. High blood pressure
When you eat too much sodium, your kidneys start to release more water. This increases the volume of your blood. As there is more blood moving around your body, your blood pressure increases. If this continues for a significant time period, your heart has to work much harder to pump blood around your body. The blood vessels also become vulnerable, which is why high blood pressure is a major culprit of heart disease and other heart problems.
Since 1994, research has emphasized the link between a high-sodium diet and hypertension (high blood pressure). It is estimated that a third of Americans have high blood pressure, and sodium is of the main reasons for this. In addition, the condition is made worse if you eat too much sodium. If you suffer from high blood pressure, you should aim for a daily sodium intake that is less than the recommended amount (less than 2300 mg per day). You should also look to increase your intake of potassium, as this can help to cancel out the negative effects that too much sodium can have on your blood pressure. Potassium can be found in spinach, cantaloupe melon, almonds, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, potatoes, orange juice, dried fruits, peanut butter, peas, tea, cocoa and coffee.
2. Nervous problems
Sodium is an electrolyte, as are potassium, calcium and magnesium. This means that it plays a part in regulating the electrical charges that flow in and out of the cells in your body, which helps nerve impulses to be sent around the body. A sodium imbalance can also cause dizziness, and in the most severe cases, it can disrupt the electrolytes in your body, which can result in complex neurological (brain) disorders.
If too much sodium is able to enter the nerve, it can cause problems as a result of there being excess sodium trapped around the nerve. There is not enough time for the sodium to be emptied from the nerve before the nerve must do its job again. This results in even more sodium collecting around the nerve, and the signal passes through the nerve before the stoma (the opening to the nerve) can open it up to do so.
Sodium is also essential in making sure that your muscles contract properly, which is why muscle cramps are a sign that you actually eat too little sodium, but given modern processed foods, this is unlikely to be a common problem - most of us consume far too much sodium, rather than too little.
3. Weak bones
Having weak bones (also known as osteoporosis) is another sign that you eat too much sodium. It has been suggested that a diet that is rich in sodium can reduce the bone density, particularly of young women. This can contribute to brittle bones in later lifer, and can increase your risk of fractured and broken bones. There have been suggestions that eating too much salt can contribute to an increase in the amount of calcium in your urine. This means that calcium absorption is a problem, as it is likely that too much calcium will be diverted into your urine. If you are concerned that your body might not be absorbing enough calcium, it is a good idea to decrease your sodium consumption.
How can you tell how much sodium is in the food that you eat? Food packaging can be a big clue. In America, the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) Food Labeling Guide means that consumers must be advised whether the product is sodium-free, low-sodium or reduced-sodium. If the main label on a food says that it is low fat, a disclaimer statement must state whether it contains more than 480 mg of sodium in a single serving.
The amount of sodium in our food is extremely worrying. To cut down on the amount of sodium that you and your family eat, there are certain steps that you can take. Most people add sodium to their food to flavor it, but you can add herbs and spices for added flavor instead. Natural foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains contain little sodium, so you can increase your consumption of them. When we snack, we tend to opt for foods such as chips and cheese, which are usually full of sodium. Swapping these for dried fruit and crackers is a better option if you want to limit your sodium consumption. Likewise, processed foods also contain lots of sodium. Cutting down on the amount of these that you eat will dramatically reduce how much sodium your diet contains.
Sodium is purely an acquired taste as your taste buds have become accustomed to it being present in most of your food. In the past, our ancestors lived on a diet that was low in sodium and high in potassium. They were believed to have survived on a single gram of sodium per day, if they were vegetarian, and around four grams if their diet included a lot of meat, so their salt intake was literally as much as it needed to be for survival purposes. We can easily survive on the amount of sodium that is naturally present in our food. This is significant as it means that it is easy to reverse our apparent need for sodium. If you reduce your sodium intake, your taste buds will simply adjust themselves to the different taste, and you will no longer crave sodium.