Salt is essential to our body’s fluids. On the other hand, anyone who’s gotten a mouth full of seawater knows that too much salt tastes terrible. Maybe your body’s trying to tell you something. It turns out that too much salt can lead to a host of health problems.
The chemical name for dietary salt, or table salt, is sodium chloride. Since 90% of the sodium we ingest is from salt, it’s difficult to separate the effects of salt and sodium. However, most doctors focus on the sodium part.
The best known effect of sodium on health is the relationship between sodium and blood pressure. Dozens of studies have shown that a higher salt intake raises blood pressure. Reducing salt intake, on the other hand, lowers blood pressure.
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries as the heart pumps out blood. When this pressure rises — a condition called high blood pressure, or hypertension — it can damage the body in many ways over time. High blood pressure has been linked to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and other health problems.
Certain groups of people see greater reductions in blood pressure when they lower their salt intake: African-Americans, older people, and people with blood pressure above normal.
Experts recommend that people take in less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day — about 6 grams of salt, or about a teaspoon. People with high blood pressure should shoot for 1,500 milligrams or less — about 3.7 grams of salt. But right now, the average man in the United States takes in over 10 grams of salt per day and the average woman over 7.
The salt we sprinkle on our food actually accounts for less than 10% of our salt consumption.
Most of the salt we eat comes in processed foods from stores and restaurants. You may already know that fast food, cold cuts, and canned foods tend to have a lot of salt, but over 20% of the salt in the average American’s diet comes from grain products, such as breads, cereals, crackers, and chips.
Pay attention to nutrition facts on the labels. Try to select foods with less than 5% of the daily value of salt per serving. Even small reductions can have an effect on your blood pressure.
Beyond salt, a healthy eating plan can help keep your blood pressure under control. Other lifestyle measures can help you keep your blood pressure down, too. Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Get regular physical activity. Quit smoking. And manage your stress. The more of these steps you take, the more likely you’ll be to avoid related health problems.
Andrew Smith, MD, specializes in Internal Medicine at Erlanger Bledsoe Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. Talk to your doctor about ways to help you keep your blood pressure down. Don’t have a doctor? Find one here.