It is estimated that 116 million US adults have hypertension. When someone has elevated blood pressure or hypertension, they are often told to limit their salt/sodium intake. Hypertension increases the risk for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death for people in the United States. Lifestyle modifications such as a lower sodium diet can benefit one’s heart health. Let’s look at what it means to watch your sodium intake and how salt/sodium can affect your blood pressure and overall heart health.


What are the recommendations for salt intake?

Research shows a strong relationship between the amount of salt we consume and our blood pressure level. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg a day of sodium, moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. Studies conducted on sodium intake show that 9 out of 10 American’s consume too much sodium with the average intake of sodium at 3,400 mg per day. With the average intake so high for most people, cutting back by even 1,000 mg per day can significantly improve blood pressure.


What is the blood pressure link?

Higher sodium diets may be one of the reasons high blood pressure is on the rise. In some people, sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excessive fluid in the body, creating added stress on one’s heart. Excessive levels of sodium may cause increased water retention that can also lead to bloating, puffiness and weight gain. This excessive fluid can also contribute to kidney disease, stroke, and heart failure.


How can we determine how much sodium we are eating each day and how can we begin to cut back?

The Nutrition Facts label is a great tool to help you determine how much sodium is in a particular food. When looking at the nutrition facts, first look at the serving size. The serving size will tell you what one portion is and then you will be able to check to see how much sodium is in that one serving. The amount of sodium is listed in milligrams (mg). Remember, if you eat more than one serving the amount of sodium you take in may be double or even triple depending on your serving size. Another place to look for sodium is in the ingredient list. Words such as sodium, salt, soda, sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or sodium benzote all contribute to the sodium content of the food.

To cut back on sodium in packaged foods, look for these terms which indicate less sodium in that particular food item:

  • Salt/Sodium- Free – less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
  • Very Low Sodium – 35 mg or less per serving
  • Low sodium – 140 mg or less per serving
  • Reduced sodium – at least 25 % less sodium per serving then the original product
  • Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted – at least 50% less sodium than the original product
  • No Salt Added – no salt is added during processing but these products may not be sodium free

Using the food labels, you can easily add up how much sodium you consume each day and can make better choices to keep your sodium intake to the desired level. Be particularly careful with processed foods as they will be high contributors to your sodium intake. Highest sodium foods are deli meats, cured meats such as bacon and salami, packaged meals such as frozen dinners, canned foods such as soups, prepared gravies, jarred salad dressings, pizza, sandwiches, breads, rolls, chips and crackers.


But what if a food does not have a food label?

Prepared restaurant foods and take out or fast food can be a major source of high sodium intake. Often times one sub sandwich, a bowl of soup or a burger can contribute a days’ worth of sodium. Salt can be sneaky and easily adds up. For example, one slice of bread can have up to 230 mg of sodium and a servings of deli turkey meat can contain as much as 1,000 mg. With those 2 items, you can get half of your daily sodium intake! Many restaurants will have nutrition facts on their meals and you may be able to see how much sodium is in each of their menu items. If the restaurant or fast-food place has a website, this is a good place to look up how much sodium is in an item.

If you are unsure, there are always things you can do to keep sodium intake down. First thing is, do not add extra salt to your food. Keep the salt shaker off the table. Since foods already have sodium in them, you do not want to start adding more. Choose foods that do not have sauces and gravies on them. Look for items that say grilled or baked such as chicken and fish dishes. Choose sides without cheeses such as a side of steamed veggies and a baked potato. If having a salad, always ask for the dressing on the side as many dressings can have quite a bit of sodium or choose oil and vinegar dressing which is a low sodium option. Many restaurants will also accommodate your requests, so speak up. Let them know that you cannot have a lot of sodium and you would like to know what their low sodium options are. Restaurants often have healthier choices or lighter fare options, look for these on their menu, these are often smaller portions which also can mean lower in sodium.


Keeping our Hearts healthy

Limiting sodium is important for our heart health but that is not the only thing to consider. Since sodium in excess is not good for your heart, it is best to limit it but you also want to consider what other healthy foods should one be eating to help keep your heart healthy. Along with watching your sodium intake and keeping it within the desired level, you also should follow these heart healthy tips:

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables – make your diet colorful – eat a rainbow of colors every day!
  • Choose whole grain foods and limit refined grains
  • Choose low fat or fat free dairy products
  • Eat poultry with the skin off
  • Consume fish at least twice a week
  • Include unsalted nuts in your diet and legumes
  • Use non-tropical vegetable oils
  • Limit saturated fats including red meats
  • Limit sweets and sugary drinks
  • Avoid trans fat

Start tracking your sodium intake and take a closer look at food labels to tally up your daily intake. If you find you are going over in sodium, make some changes by cutting back on foods which contain large amounts of sodium. Replace processed foods with more whole foods, make more meals at home where you can control the flavoring and limit sodium, and use herbs and spices to season foods. Small changes can make a big impact and lead to a healthier heart.