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The Truth About Salt: Is It Really That Bad For You?

Hot dogs and potato chips. Barbecue chicken. Salted caramel ice cream. What would summer be without these foods — and what would these foods be without the salt? 

The mineral, also known as sodium chloride, is a staple of human life. In fact, almost every person around the world has some sort of indirect or direct contact with salt on a daily basis. Yet, in the past few decades, manufacturers have packed extra salt into processed foods. Today, around 90 percent of Americans are eating more sodium than recommended. 

At what point does salt become a dealbreaker for your health? We checked in with the experts. Here’s what they had to say.

Salty truths

You need some salt to survive. It’s estimated you need at least 500 mg daily for your body’s functions. You just enter murky territory when you get too much of it. 

“Everyone needs some salt to function,” says Dr. Daniel Boyer. “Salt is good for human health and should not be avoided. Sodium chloride is an electrolyte that helps transmit nerve impulses, maintain the proper fluid balance in the body and contract and relax muscle fibers.”

But if you’re getting too much in your diet, you can develop all sorts of health problems. Peoples’ kidneys often don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with excess sodium, so your body will hold onto extra water if you’re consuming too much salt — which increases your blood volume. Increased blood volume puts more pressure on your heart.

Over time, this can lead to all sorts of health problems, like chronic inflammation, heart failure, kidney problems and stroke. Cold cuts and cured meats, and processed foods like packaged salty snacks, breads, canned soups and bottled sauces and salad dressings, can quickly add too much salt into the average person’s diet.  

Getting crystal clear

The American Heart Association recommends that most adults get no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt (around a teaspoon) per day. Yet the ideal limit is actually 1,500 mg per day (around 2/3 of a teaspoon of table salt), especially for those with high blood pressure. Experts we spoke with agreed with these recommendations.

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive way to measure how much salt you’re getting, says Veronica Rouse, a registered dietician. For at least somewhat of an estimate, Rouse has her own clients submit food diaries: lists of everything they’ve consumed in a specific time period. From there, “we can calculate someone’s nutrient intake,” she says. 

You can also get a blood test to measure the sodium levels in your body, but the test doesn’t reveal as much information as experts would like. 

“[You can only] measure the amount of sodium relative to the volume of water in the blood,” Crouse says. “Our bodies are really good at controlling this by making us thirsty when we have a lot of salt. If our sodium level is high, we drink more and urinate more to remove excess sodium to keep it in balance.” 

A good way to know if you’ve been consuming too much salt is to simply see if cutting back has a positive effect on your blood pressure, says Boyer.

Saline solutions

Replacing processed foods with fresh foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, homemade dressings, and sauces—is the best way to slash your salt intake. Using other seasonings, like pepper, oregano, lemon, and garlic can also make a dent. When eating out, Boyer recommends asking the server for information about how much salt is used in the preparation of the food you want to order.

Crouse points out that to lower salt intake, you can also increase your consumption of potassium and calcium — minerals that most Americans are deficient in.

Potassium’s role is the opposite of sodium,” she says. “It’s well-known that we need to reduce our sodium intake, but not as well-known that adding potassium can [also] help manage blood pressure. Potassium lowers blood pressure by reducing the rigidity or tension of the blood vessels and arteries and eases the blood flow.” 

It’s best to get potassium in foods rather than supplements, says Crouse. Bananas, melon, broccoli and leafy greens are a few examples of high-potassium foods. If you’re replacing processed foods with fresh foods high in the right minerals, Crouse says adding a touch of salt to enhance the flavor is fine. “If adding [a little] salt to your vegetables helps you eat more vegetables, I encourage it.”

Ready to book a doctor’s appointment? Visit Zocdoc.

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