Sodium—better known as salt—is one of the main flavoring ingredients in most foods. We’ve known since the 1980s that consuming excessive sodium has negative health effects, but taking in too little can be harmful, too.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, healthy adults should consume about 2,300 mg per day—that’s about two-fifths of a teaspoon of salt. However, the average American consumes almost 3,500 mg per day, or about three-fifths of a teaspoon. That extra fifth of a teaspoon may not seem like much, but it adds up. In fact, that’s almost an extra pound of salt per year! The good news is that by eating a healthier diet packed with fresh fruits, veggies, and lean proteins, you can reduce your sodium intake and maintain a healthy blood pressure. Having too little sodium in the body creates a condition called hyponatremia. It can leave you feeling sluggish and confused; in extreme cases it can lead to muscle twitching and seizures. Athletes who exercise in the heat or for longer periods of time as well as older adults can be at risk for hyponatremia. Sports drinks fortified with electrolytes can help increase sodium intake and alleviate this condition.
Start reading labels. The Nutrition Facts Label can be found on most food items and lists the amount of sodium per serving. A good rule of thumb is to look for items that contain 140 mg of sodium or less per serving; these foods are considered low-sodium products. Food items that have more than 300 mg of sodium should be eaten in moderation. Remember that all salt is created equal. Whether it’s sea salt, Kosher salt, or Himalayan pink salt, it all has the same effect on your body. When cooking at home, use herbs and spices in lieu of salt to curb your craving. If you pair fresh basil, rosemary, or thyme with chicken, pork, beef, or fish, the results will be so tasty you won’t even miss the salt! When eating out, make smart choices. Ask for low-sodium options; many menus even indicate them. Choose grilled foods instead of fried foods as these foods are often lower in sodium and fat content. Split an entrée and order a side salad. This will help reduce the amount of sodium you consume as well as prevent you from eating too large a portion. In a nutshell: Eat a balanced diet and focus on fresh rather than processed foods!