Where Does Salt Fit in My Diet?

Laura Deverse RD, CNSC

Nutritional Services

Carson Tahoe Health

Is sodium required for a balanced diet or does it just add flavor?

Well, when I think of what the definition of “balanced diet” truly means, what we are talking about is including a wide variety of foods with the emphasis on whole grains, fruits & vegetables, low-fat dairy or soy and lean meats and poultry plus fish 2x week.

But when we are talking about sodium or let’s say salt, I usually encourage people to use with moderation similar to alcohol or refined sugar.

And although salt is often used for flavor, there are so many other wonderful ways to season your food such as fresh herbs, garlic, pepper, lemon that people can experiment with and are better alternatives than picking up the salt shaker. The American Heart Association has a great list of alternative ways to season your food on their website if you are just beginning to experiment and aren’t sure what herb goes with what food.

What is the recommended amount of sodium that a person should consume daily?

There isn’t a recommended amount listed for sodium that a person must consume daily because the human diet has never been without plenty. We really only need ~250-500mg sodium per day for physiological needs.

To put that in perspective for you, a teaspoon of salt contains 2300mg sodium, 5-10x what we need and it’s been estimated that the average American generally consumes more than 3gms/day, often much higher than that.

What health-related issues are associated with a diet high in sodium?

A “salty” diet can lead to water retention in some of us and can then cause an increase in our blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, CHF and kidney problems.

Ultimately, it is difficult to always know who is sensitive to salt and who is not so the recommendations for salt are for everyone – 2300mg for general population and if you are over the age of 50 and/or diagnosed with any of those conditions (CAD, CHF, CKD, CVD) the recommendation or allowance is 1500mg/day.

Without giving up your favorite foods, how can one decrease sodium intake?

When I first meet someone to discuss changing their diet, I’ll ask them what are you eating? What are your favorite foods and how much are you eating? You need to know where the sodium might be coming from and then you can make those first steps to change. Also check out the food label on some your favorite foods to get an idea of how much sodium is in the listed serving size.

And even if you have given up adding salt to your food at the table and when cooking, a big problem can be the amount of processed food you eat. Canned foods, boxed foods, liked packaged rice or pasta dishes, snack foods, frozen entrees, processed meat, restaurant/fast food even things like V8 juice or canned tuna – things we perceive as healthy can contain a lot of salt. Also watch out for condiments because they can certainly put you over the limit; salad dressing for example can really contain a lot of added salt so try flavored vinegars on your salad.

Fresh & frozen fruits and vegetables are awesome choices and most people could use a few more selections in their diet. Fresh meats, poultry, fish are naturally low in sodium, but beware of prepped stuff i.e. marinades, rubs.

Look at your favorite recipes, many times you can cut the salt required by 50% or even leave it out and you won’t notice any difference in flavor. As I mentioned earlier, learn to season with other herbs.

And finally, begin to cut back gradually, recognize that when you cut back on salt, sugar or fat the taste buds will need some time to adapt to the change, sometimes it can take as long as 6 weeks but if you stick with it eventually then you can learn to  appreciate the low sodium life-style.