Trim the amount of salt in your diet to lower your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension.) That's been the health advice for years, but most people don't heed it. "Our bodies require just a tiny amount of sodium -- 500 milligrams (mg) a day, or the quantity found in Â¼ teaspoon of salt. And yet the average American consumes eight times this minimum amount," says Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D. author of "Blood Pressure Down." She adds, "Excess sodium consumed in the diet will lead to high blood pressure in most individuals. In fact, a whopping 90 percent of us will eventually develop high blood pressure from a lifetime of too much salt."
How low should you go?
A report issued in May 2013 on salt intake by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) confused the issue over how much sodium you should aim for in your diet. Previously, the IOM had recommended a sodium intake of 2,300 mg (about one teaspoon of salt) per day, and further restriction to 1,500 mg per day for adults who are at higher risk (over age 51, African American, and people with hypertension, diabetes, or kidney disease). But the IOM's new report states there was no rationale for people to aim for a sodium intake below 2,300 mg a day, thus the level of restriction is unnecessary.
This announcement sparked major controversy among many public health experts, who supported lower sodium levels for at-risk individuals. And the worst-case scenario arose when newspaper headlines across the country announced that cutting back on salt is no longer needed. However, it's important to remember that most Americans far exceed the 2,300 mg sodium target, putting themselves at risk for disease. At the very minimum, you should keep your sodium intake under this level as your best bet for optimal health.
Put sodium in its place
Keeping your sodium intake below 2,300 mg per day may be easier said than done, however, considering the enormous amounts of sodium found in some foods; many prepared soups, entrees and side dishes in the supermarket contain at least 1,000 mg per serving, and restaurant meals can provide more than 5,000 mg. In fact, processed and prepared foods account for 77 percent of the sodium in our diets; only 10 percent of our average sodium intake comes from naturally occurring salt in foods, and only five to 10 percent from the salt shaker.
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to sodium levels in foods. "People need to beware of relying too much on their taste buds to detect the sodium. There are plenty of foods with unacceptable levels of sodium that do not necessarily taste salty," says Brill, who adds that a large shake at McDonald's contains almost double the amount of sodium as an order of large French fries.
There's only one way to really know for sure how much sodium is found in your favorite foods. Check the nutrition facts label on all products before you drop them into your shopping cart. The Percent Daily Value ( percentDV) for sodium, based on 100 percent of the recommended amount of sodium for the day, is a good guide for keeping your sodium in check. If a product contains 5 percent DV or less for sodium, it's considered a low sodium product; 20 percent DV or higher means it's a high sodium food. If most of your foods are low-sodium selections--good job!--you're on your way to meeting your sodium target.
Where's the sodium hiding?
Top sources of sodium in the diet
The following foods account for 40 percent of all the sodium Americans eat each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
--Breads and rolls
--Cold cuts and cured meats