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The Science Behind Healthy Eating Patterns, Explained: Sodium

Updated on January 22, 2016


The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released to the public last week, and as usual, there's a lot of science at the forefront to support recommendations for healthy eating in the United States.

These guidelines highlight general overviews of the studies and systematic reviews that point to the benefits of healthy eating patterns as well as the risks associated with poor eating habits. Some of the science is a bit too complicated for the average reader to grasp: or so it would seem.

Over the next several posts we will dive a little bit deeper into the specifics of several different recommendations mentioned in the report, beginning with sodium, and why experts recommend consuming less than 2300 milligrams daily.

How does sodium behave in our bodies?

Sodium is an essential part of our body's normal processes, which is why you'll find it in a lot of foods even before more is added. It helps our muscles relax and contract and plays an important role in our nervous system. It also helps maintain the balance of our body's fluids.

Without enough of it, your body wouldn't be too happy with you. But as you've probably heard, and as the new dietary guidelines reflect, too much of it can also cause problems.

Why is too much salt such a bad idea?

The tricky thing about salt is, you don't need to actually consume a whole lot of it to keep your biological systems functioning properly. Too much of it really can hurt you. It can throw off your fluid balance and raise your blood pressure, which, as we've learned, is quite a dangerous thing to happen inside your body consistently over a long period of time.

Too much sodium in your diet significantly increases your risk of developing heart disease. Excess sodium, which ends up in your blood, throws off the balance of fluids your body normally maintains. Your kidneys can't remove the excess water, your blood pressure shoots up because of the extra fluid and your heart is forced to work - too hard - to compensate.

Which foods contain the most sodium?

The easiest answer here is processed foods. According to the American Heart Association, over 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes entirely from the salt added to processed foods.

Why does processed equal salty? Because any food that goes through significant alterations before it reaches the store or your plate - all processed food - contains added ingredients, many of which contain sodium for its preservative superpowers.

Some of our favorite foods, such as food consumed at restaurants, soups, salad dressings, even pastas and cereals are all processed. This is one of many reasons why officials are also recommending we consume more whole foods like whole fruits and whole grains, which go through significantly less processing. But we'll talk more about this recommendation next time.

Until then, read through the key recommendations and leave any questions you have about them in the comments below.


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