Sugar is always getting a bad rap, but the reality is that salt doesn’t fall too far behind. Plenty of foods, from good ol’ potato chips to a seemingly innocent can of vegetable soup, are notoriously crammed with high levels of sodium. So, it’s no surprise that a study published in the British Medical Journal found that the mean global sodium intake is nearly twice the recommended limit.
“These days, there is just so much extra sodium in all of our food,” says Stacy Rothschild, R.D., founder of New Leaf Nutrition. “Even someone trying to eat minimally processed food is getting more than their share and daily recommended dietary allowance of 1500-2300 mg per day.”
Too Much Salt Is Risky
Going to town on the salt shaker is certainly not recommended, but what are the exact risks? For one, high blood pressure.
Excess sodium pulls water out of cells and into the blood stream, and over time, blood volume increases and raises blood pressure, explains Rachita Reddy, MD, a double board-certified nephrologist and internist. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Additionally, our kidneys regulate the levels of salt in our body by getting rid of the excess, but when there is a constant overload, the kidneys can’t keep up and salt is retained in the body. This causes water retention and fluid shifts, which stress the heart, blood vessels, and kidneys, and increase heart attack and stroke risk. Being that heart disease and stroke are the nation’s first and third leading causes of death, staying aware of your salt intake is extremely important.
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Too Little Salt Is Risky, Too
It bears noting that balanced sodium levels are the key to feeling your best. “Salt is the most concentrated electrolyte in the bloodstream,” explains Dr. Reddy. “Its vital roles include muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve conduction and signaling, and maintaining proper fluid balance.” So don’t give up on salt just yet!
“Letting your body’s stores of the nutrient drop too low can lead to muscle cramping, postural dizziness, nausea, heatstroke, and shock,” says Dr. Reddy. “Since sodium is not produced by the body, consumption is obligatory to maintain adequate balance.”
Consider runners or athletes. They need to keep their bodies running like well-oiled machines—so they’re definitely making sure they’re getting enough sodium. They’re obviously sweating more, and in turn, losing more sodium—up to 1000+ mg in sweat per hour of active exercise, Dr. Reddy says.
But what about the rest of us?
“On average, healthy adults lose between 500-1500 mg of sodium daily through sweat, breathing, and urination,” notes Dr. Reddy. You don’t need much to replace the loss, though.
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Get Your Salt From The Right Sources
If you’re interested in making sure you get the most out of regular sodium intake, you’ll do well to really keep an eye on it. Read product labels, use half the salt you tend to use, and make sure that the salt you’re consuming is iodized, which, according to Brian Tanzer, M.S., C.N.S., nutritionist and manager of scientific affairs for The Vitamin Shoppe, is important because iodine deficiency can impact things like your energy levels and your thyroid functions.
Ultimately, when in doubt about striking the right balance with sodium, it’s best to steer toward whole foods. “Processed foods are not where you want to be getting your sodium from!” says Frances Holmes, C.N.C. “Healthy sources include sea salt, certain seaweeds like dulse, and all fruits and vegetables.”
Upping your intake of these— while doing your best not to go to town on those potato chips—will ensure you’re fueling your sodium intake in the best possible way.