Sodium wasn't always the scourge of heart-healthy eaters. You need a small amount of sodium for fluid balance, muscle contraction and nerve function. Ancient civilizations relied on the sodium in table salt for food preservation, but modern food manufacturers overuse this essential mineral. Restaurant meals and processed foods use high amounts of sodium for preservation and flavor. Even if you regularly pass on the salt shaker, there's still a good chance you're eating more sodium than you need.
Sodium works with potassium to balance water and transmit nerve signals. The human body has a natural tendency to retain sodium, because sodium was a scarce mineral in ancient diets. Ancient humans ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium. The abundance of processed foods reversed this trend, and most adults now eat too much sodium and not enough potassium. For good health, you should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. The average American consumes approximately 3,400 milligrams.
Consuming too much sodium puts you at risk for several health conditions. Extra sodium causes water retention, which builds pressure in the blood vessels and leads to high blood pressure. The American Institute for Cancer Research concluded that a high-salt diet is a probable risk factor for stomach cancer. Too much sodium may also damage your bones. When you excrete sodium in your urine, calcium is also excreted. If you excrete a lot of sodium, calcium may be removed from your bones. Over time, this can lead to osteoporosis.
Approximately 77 percent of sodium in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, and some foods contain almost an entire day's worth of sodium. Three ounces of ham contain 1,114 milligrams of sodium, and 3 ounces of canned shrimp contain 1,955 milligrams. One cup of packaged pancake mix contains 2,036 milligrams of sodium. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports that meat pizza, white bread, processed cheese, hot dogs and spaghetti with sauce are the top five sources of sodium in the American diet.
To avoid excess sodium, go natural. Eat more fresh and unprocessed foods and choose low-sodium and reduced-sodium varieties of canned foods. Flavor your home-cooked meals with fresh or dried spices and herbs and avoid seasoning salts, such as onion salt or garlic salt. Condiments, sauces and salad dressings are usually high in sodium, so choose low-sodium varieties or make your own from scratch.
Jennifer Dlugos is a Boston-based writer with more than 10 years of experience in the health-care and wellness industries. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches screenwriting and film production classes throughout New England. Dlugos holds a master's degree in dietetics.