Having an adequate amount of nutrients is essential to proper health, but in the case of sodium, it’s easy to have too much of a good thing. In a super-sized food culture, controlling sodium intake can be an uphill climb.

 

Sodium and Thirst

The electrolyte sodium is responsible for fluid retention, and ultimately holds the key to why we experience thirst. Throughout the day there is a gradual reduction in blood fluids from chemical reactions. This process occurs much more rapidly during exercise than at rest. When fluids are lost and sodium remains, there is a relative increase in the concentrations of sodium in the blood. The body’s average daily loss of fluids through excretion, respiration, chemical reactions, and perspiration varies from about 1 to 3 quarts.

A high-protein diet calls for an even greater amount of fluid intake. At 2% dehydration, the body’s capacity to work decreases by 12% to 15%. Body temperature and heart rate increase during periods of dehydration. The body’s prevention mechanism is osmorecepter transmission to the brain, stimulating a sensation of thirst prior to the onset of dehydration.

How Much Salt is Enough?

There is no established dietary requirement for sodium but it observed in general that average intake by the average person far exceeds what is necessary to normal bodily functions.

The National Research Council recommends a daily sodium chloride intake of 1 gram per kilogram of water consumed. An excess of sodium intake may cause an increased amount of potassium to be lost in the urine. A prolonged abnormally high amount of sodium in the body will result in fluid retention accompanied by dizziness and swelling of areas such as the legs and the face. An intake of 14 to 28 grams of salt daily is considered excessive.

In addition to short-term problems during exercise, diets consisting of excessive amounts of salt contribute to increased changes for developing high blood pressure and other long-term health problems.

History

Perhaps you are familiar with the term “salary”? Depending on the source, the term derived from the practice by ancient Rome of paying its soldiers with salt because it was so prized as a supplement to military rations, or it was just enough money to buy salt for the same purpose. Either way, salt has been prized part of the human diet since ancient times. In the modern Western diet, sodium continues to be pervasive not only as a flavoring but as a preservative. And it comes in many more forms than just table salt.

Cutting Down and Cutting Out

Perhaps the easiest way to begin cutting down on excessive sodium intake is cut out table salt. While that’s a great start, sodium lurks in just about every kind of processed food we consume, from fast food to frozen meals.

Cooking at Home

Cooking and baking at home allows for the most control over sodium as an ingredient. When possible, substitute flavorings such as herbs and spices like garlic, oregano, basil, pepper, thyme, chilies, and sesame. They are all zesty ways to add flavor without adding sodium. If a recipe does call for salt, try trimming the amount to about half, then try a taste before adding more. You may find that less is really needed than called for in the recipe.

At the Grocery

Processed foods anything in a box or bag tend to be high in sodium largely due to the element’s use as preservative and flavor enhancer. Make sure to read labels for the foods you buy, including the sodium content on the nutrition facts label and the ingredients list. Keep in mind that terms like “low-fat” or “low-calorie” don’t necessarily equate to being healthy. Diet foods can sometimes be higher in sodium as a way to compensate for any perceived loss flavor loss from reduced fat or sugar content. Frozen meals are notorious for this, and in many cases, the reputation is deserved. When possible, select low-, no- or reduced-sodium versions of foods such as soups, frozen meals, canned foods, and snacks that you enjoy.

Can I Have Some Fries with that Salt?

Fast foods are known for being high in both fat and sodium. It’s not uncommon for many menu items to contain more than the daily-recommended intake of sodium in just one serving. But it’s not all gloom and doom.

Fortunately, many fast food restaurant chains have started displaying nutritional information including the amount of sodium and fat.

Often, fast food chains have scaled-down, “value”-sized version of many of their offerings, which is another way to keep portion sizes reasonable.

References

Institute of Medicine. (2005) Dietary reference intakes for water, potassium, sodium chloride, and sulfate. (1st ed.) Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Federation of Professional Trainers (2008). Sports Nutrition Manual (2nd ed.) Lafayette, IN: NFPT