By Christine Zellers, MPP, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences
Sodium is an essential micronutrient that the body needs to function properly, and it is an essential electrolyte which assists with maintaining the balance of water in and around cells. Sodium contributes to proper muscle function and nerve function while stabilizing blood pressure levels. However, most American’s consume too much sodium because we eat too many packaged and processed foods. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 2300 mg of sodium per day for adults however the average American consumes 3,400 mg per day. Overconsumption of sodium can be detrimental despite it being an essential micronutrient. Short term effects of too much salt intake include extreme thirst, blood pressure spikes and a feeling of bloating due to water retention. While the short-term effects of too much sodium are somewhat uncomfortable, the long-term effects can be long lasting and even dangerous. For instance, consistently eating too much sodium can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure and has had links to stomach cancers. To avoid the ill effects of sodium, make sure to eat it in moderation and be aware of what foods contain high levels of salt.
Seventy percent of the sodium in American’s diets comes from packaged foods that add up quickly for high levels of salt consumption. According to the CDC the largest amounts of sodium in American’s diets come from grains and meats. Processed poultry, soups, and sandwiches contribute a great amount of sodium to our daily lives as well. To determine just how much sodium is being consumed choose a day and read the nutrition facts label and total up all the sodium for that day that is eaten, it may be a surprise to see that 2300 mg totals up quickly. A single piece of bread for instance may contain as much as 230mg of sodium and if it is made into a sandwich it is 460mg without anything but bread. Soups, salad dressings, packaged salads, canned tomato products and snack foods may all contribute to high sodium intake. Some foods remove fat and add sugar or salt so be on the lookout for products that may seem healthy. Any product that contains 35mg or below is a low sodium product, however if it has 140mg or higher it fits in the high sodium category. Checking the nutrition facts label is the best strategy to avoid eating too much sodium.
Some foods have high sodium levels that are obvious from their salty taste. However, some foods like cottage cheese and instant pudding might not be as apparent but do have high levels of sodium despite being sweet or bland. Other foods to be aware of with high levels of sodium are salad dressings, soup, shrimp (due to sodium-based preservative), ham, frozen and fresh pizza, processed cheese, canned vegetables, and dried meats. To avoid eating too much salt try eating higher sodium foods in moderation. For instance, if you have frozen pizza which could have as much as 756 mg of sodium per serving then try eating something with less sodium at other meals. Eating out can also contribute to high amounts of sodium as there is salt added to the meal. Rather than avoiding eating out try only eating half the meal and taking it home to eat the next day to split up the higher-level sodium foods or request the chef not add salt to your meal.
When purchasing canned foods like soups, beans or vegetables look for low sodium options or rinse beans and vegetables before eating to reduce the amount of sodium that was used to preserve the product. When cooking or eating at home do not add salt until the food has been tasted and try adding it in small amounts so it is not more than is needed. Substituting herbs and spices can make food flavorful too when cooking and is a good way to cut back on sodium. Small steps to avoid high levels of sodium will keep life tasty and healthy at the same time.