Tracking sodium in what we eat

November 03, 2011 By Mark S. Garavel, MS, RD

The words salt and sodium are often used interchangeably but there is a difference. Sodium (sodium chloride) is part of salt and can occur naturally in a food. Foods with added salt tend to be higher in sodium than food with naturally occurring sodium. Some sodium is needed for our body as sodium controls fluid balance and maintains blood volume and blood pressure. But a diet high in sodium may contribute to elevated blood pressure and cause fluid retention, resulting in swelling of the legs and feet. Water may also collect around the lungs and lead to shortness of breath. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and kidney disease.

Each teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium but studies suggest many Americans eat five or more teaspoons of salt daily. This is about 20 times more than the body needs. The 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans suggest reducing daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg; and to 1,500 mg or less for persons 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, primarily adults but also children. A study in the February 2010 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that if everyone cut salt intake by just ½ teaspoon per day there would be close to 100,000 fewer heart attacks annually.

Salt is found naturally in foods, but more is added while at the table or while cooking. Salt can also come from many foods that do not taste salty but may still be high in sodium. For example, there may be large amounts of sodium in canned, processed and convenience foods, as well as in many foods at restaurants. The more people cook for themselves the more control they will have over the salt in their food.

Be careful when reading food labels. According to the Food and Drug Administration, for a food to be labeled “low sodium” it must have 140 mg of sodium or less per serving. “Reduced or less sodium” only means that the food has at least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the “regular” full-sodium food cited on the label. For example, some cold cuts are sometimes labeled “reduced sodium” but they can have as much as 300 mg of sodium per ounce.

Mark Garavel is a registered dietitian and manager of Clinical Nutrition at The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC). For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 800.321.6244.