Should you avoid salt? Some sources claim it isn’t as bad for your health as once thought. David Trachtenbarg, MD, UnityPoint Health, says having too much salt in your diet is entirely possible, and while you do need some salt in your body, he explains the reasons why watching your salt intake still matters.
What’s Too Much Salt?
On average, Dr. Trachtenbarg says most people consume between 9,000-12,000 milligrams of sodium a day, roughly over three times the recommended amount. He suggests keeping daily sodium levels at 2,300 milligrams maximum, with less than 1,500 milligrams being preferred, especially for adults with high blood pressure.
“For most people, there are no side effects of having too much sodium,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says. “But, that doesn’t mean salt can’t have a negative effect on the body.”
He lists the health impacts of consuming excess sodium:
- Blood pressure. Eating too much salt is linked to hypertension, or high blood pressure. Reducing salt intake to 5,000-6,000 milligrams per day has shown to lower blood pressure.
- Heart health. If you have heart disease or congestive heart failure, extra salt can cause fluid retention, which can lead to shortness of breath and hospitalization.
- Kidney function. If you have kidney disease, too much salt in your diet may cause you to retain fluid, leading to weight gain and bloating.
- Diabetes. While not directly connected to blood sugar, eating too much salt increases the risk of complications from diabetes.
“Nearly every processed food has added salt,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says. “When eating processed foods, it’s important to look at the amount of sodium listed on the nutrition label.”
How to Reduce Sodium Intake
The simplest way to reduce the amount of salt in your diet is avoiding processed foods and not adding salt to your meal. Dr. Trachtenbarg encourages you to look closely at nutritional labels, staying away from foods with high salt content, like bacon and large pickles.
“Reduced sodium or low-sodium foods can help reduce blood pressure, but foods with close to zero salt are often tasteless. The good news is if you limit salt intake, your body becomes more sensitive to the salt in food. This means many processed foods may become too salty for your taste, and you can enjoy lower sodium foods without missing the flavor,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says.
Other common beliefs about reducing sodium don’t hold as much promise. Dr. Trachtenbarg lists why the following steps don’t balance out salt consumption.
- Drinking more water. Extra water doesn’t “wash out” the salt. High salt intake can lead to bloating and fluid retention.
- Sweating it out. There’s about 500 milligrams of salt in a pound of sweat. Normally, only a very few athletic people will sweat a significant amount of salt. Even though exercising in high temperatures produces more sweat and salt, it can also lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal.
- Using “healthy” salt options. Sea salt is often talked about as being a better sodium option. And, while sea salt does have a different element make-up than salt (sodium chloride), there’s no clear benefit of choosing sea salt over regular table salt.
As for those who say at least salt is better than sugar, Dr. Trachtenbarg says that isn’t necessarily the case. Both salt and sugar need to be watched and enjoyed in moderation.
“Watching both salt and sugar intake is important. Controlling salt intake reduces blood pressure, and reducing sugar in your diet helps control your weight and blood glucose (sugar) if you have diabetes,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says.
To start reducing how much salt you eat, Dr. Trachtenbarg recommends the DASH diet, which helps lower blood pressure and focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
“Eating unprocessed food with little to no added salt is the easiest way to reduce your salt intake. Have fun making your own dishes using low-salt recipes. Experiment with different spices in your cupboard, instead of reaching for your salt shaker.”