Know Your Labels: Sodium

To follow up with my post last week about High Blood Pressure, I thought I’d share about what the food labels about sodium mean. Sodium is something that we now have wide access to. It is a minor mineral that is vital to our well being. It helps put water into the cells, and another mineral (potassium) helps with taking it out. We need both otherwise our cells would not be hydrated and we’d dry up, and without potassium we’d keep holding onto liquid until we burst. However, since sodium is so prevalent in the foods we buy, especially fast food, prepared and preserved foods, we can get too much which can cause swelling and increase our blood pressure since the volume of liquid would have increased.

Knowing what’s being marketed to you is important, and knowing exactly what labels mean when they refer to sodium is important as well. Let’s dig in!

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst
Salt vs. Sodium

A lot of times these words are used interchangeably on labels or when we talk about salt or sodium, but there is a slight difference. Salt (or sodium chloride) is the crystal-like compound that is abundant in nature and is what we use to sprinkle on foods. Sodium is a mineral that partly makes up salt and is the water retaining mineral that our cells use.

Nutrition Labels & Salt/Sodium

For an average 2,000 calorie a day diet, the recommended amount of sodium is 2,300 mg per day or less. That is just an average. This is not including if you are trying to decrease your blood pressure or have been told to lessen your sodium for other health reasons. For instance, for those with high blood pressure cutting back to 1,500 mg a day is recommended and even going as low as 1,000 mg a day can improve your blood pressure and heart health.

  • Salt/Sodium Free: Less than 5mg of sodium per serving
  • Very Low Sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
  • Low Sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
  • Reduced Sodium: at least 25% less sodium than the regular product
  • Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted: at least 50% less sodium than the regular product

And now here’s the tricky one.

  • No-Salt-Added or Unsalted: No salt is added during processing – BUT these products may not be salt/sodium free unless stated as such. It just means that no salt was added during processing but doesn’t mean the ingredients of the product doesn’t have sodium/salt.
Is Salt Really That Bad For You?

If you would like more information about salt/sodium and see how it is beneficial and when having more sodium than usual might be beneficial, check out out my earlier post “Is Salt Really Bad For You and Your Heart?” to get a better perspective for your own personal health.

Bottom Line

If you are needing to watch your salt intake or are worried about high blood pressure that is in your family history, then try limiting your sodium/salt intake to 1,500-2,300 mg a day. Eating fresh produce, making food at home, not eating prepared meals or frozen meals, and making sure to buy canned food with “sodium free”, “low sodium”, “no salt added” (if it’s vegetables or beans), can help with reducing your sodium. The link above for the “Is Salt Really Bad for You and Your Heart?” post, I also have different seasoning combinations you can use instead of salt that you can try to add first when cooking, and then add a small amount of salt when needed. The post last week has some tips on what you can do with your lifestyle to help reduce blood pressure as well.

Sodium is something we need to survive, but with everything there needs to be a balance and not excess.

Do you find it hard to stay away from salt?

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Is Salt Really Bad for You and Your Heart?

Since February is Heart Health month, I wanted to post something about how salt affects your health! There has been a lot of talk recently about different kinds of salt and their healthy benefits, and then you hear about how you should be staying away from it. So which is it?

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst
What is Salt?

Salt is Sodium (40%) Chloride (60%). These are both two minerals, and are both electrolytes. In a nutshell electrolytes regulate the flow of water in and out of the cells and sparks nerve impulses. They make sure our cells are hydrated, so we don’t shrivel up and die, and enables the transition of nerve impulses to help keep our bodies functioning. Think of your involuntary muscles that keep your heart beating, your lungs opening, and even the electrical impulses in the brain. Electrolytes are very important. Which is why replenishing electrolytes after and while sweating for an hour or more from exercising or being in the heat for hours is so important.

What about specifically salt? What does it do?

Sodium

  • Muscle Contractions, losing sodium through sweat or fluid can cause cramps in athletes
  • Maintains Nerve Function
  • Regulates Blood Volume
  • Regulates Blood Pressure

Chloride

  • Carries an Electrical Charge
  • Essential for Nerve Impulses
  • Essential for Fluid Balance

But with anything, too much of even a good thing can be bad.

Salt Sensitivity

There are some who can increase their salt intake and it does not effect them. Then there are some of those who with the slightest increase of salt increases their blood pressure and wrecks havoc on their body.

Salt & Blood Pressure

Keeping in mind there are some that are more sensitive to salt than others for various reasons, an excess of salt naturally will cause more water to be retained in your blood, increasing your blood volume. Increased blood volume increases the pressure and can make it harder for your heart to pump. The extra stress on the heart and blood vessels can then lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Also note that it’s not just salt that is a factor in blood pressure and heart disease. Fat intake and cholesterol levels are the major concern, but in a person with high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, salt can be like adding another log on the fire.

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Are There Certain Salts That Are Better Than Others?

There has been a lot of talk about different salts. Pink Himalayan salt, Celtic salt, Sea Salt, and so on. “They” say these salts are better for you than regular table salt. Let’s take a minute to compare.

  • Table salt is processed and does have some anti-caking additives.
  • Table salt has iodine added to it which in needed for thyroid health.
  • Himalayan, Celtic, and Sea salt are less refined and processed and contain a small percentage (2%) of other minerals like calcium and potassium.
  • Because the more natural salts are usually bigger flakes and they don’t have additives, you don’t have to use as much and it is “saltier”.
    • However, it’s the same amount of sodium chloride.

There are some benefits to Himalayan, Celtic, and Sea salts, but it might not be as big of a benefit as you might have thought it was when we are talking about it’s affect on the heart. Just because it’s said to be “healthier” it doesn’t mean you can have more of it because it’s pink. It’s still sodium chloride.

Just like some people are more sensitive to different types of caffeine, some might react better to certain types of salt. But chemically speaking, sodium chloride is sodium chloride. With that being said, I am all for the more natural variety of things. There is a reason why other minerals and chemicals are together in their original state, why strip them of it? At the same time, don’t be scared of table salt.

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Recommendations & Lifestyle

Salt, or sodium chloride is still very much needed in your diet and plays vital roles in your body. The recommended daily intake of sodium a day is 2,300 milligrams (mg). Those with heart complications and specifically high blood pressure the RDA is no more than 1,500 mg. And realize that sodium is not just in salt, it’s in other foods as well, it’s a mineral.

Sodium helps your cells to hydrate and retain water. Too much can cause pressure in your circulatory system which makes it harder on your heart which can then start to cause damage or add to the damage already there. If your system already retains too much water or you already have cardiovascular complications, then a low sodium diet is something you should look into.

Salt is not the cause of heart problems, but it does affect it. With the foods that are widely available now, most being processed, and more people not cooking and buying already prepared foods, we can easily meet our 2,300 mg recommended intake. If you do cook at home, what can we do to help reduce the amount of sodium?

Here are a few ideas on how to cook with less sodium. Check out these herbs, spices, wines and vinegars to add while cooking instead of salt.

  • Carrots: Cinnamon, cloves, dill, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary, sage, white wine
  • Corn: Cumin, curry powder, parsley, chili powder, paprika
  • Green Beans: Dill, lemon juice, marjoam, oregano, tarragon, thyme
  • Tomatoes: Basil, dill, onion, oregano, parsley, pepper, lemon juice, chili powder, red wine, balsamic vinegar
  • Fish: Curry powder, dill, dry mustard, lemon juice, paprika, pepper, garlic powder, white wine
  • Chicken: Poultry seasoning, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, mustard powder, garlic powder, curry powder, lemon juice, chili powder, cumin, white wine, red wine, balsamic vinegar
  • Pork: Garlic, onion, sage, pepper, oregano, Italian seasoning, rosemary, chili powder, white wine
  • Beef: Marjoram, nutmeg, sage, thyme, red wine, balsamic vinegar

If you are not dairy-free you can always sprinkle parmesan on just about anything, which has a small amount of sodium, or you can use nutritional yeast on just about anything too.

If you have heart complications and need to watch your sodium intake, you can check out the “DASH diet” if you have not already. It’s a way of eating that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins and has more tips on how to reduce sodium in your diet. Check out more information about it here.