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How Much Salt Do You Need to Be Healthy?

Are there benefits to higher sodium diets?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #391

For decades, health officials have been telling us to limit sodium to 2400 mg per day, or 1,500 mg if you have high blood pressure. (Ironically, the recommended minimum for sodium is exactly the same as the recommended maximum for people with high blood pressure!) Meanwhile, the typical American takes in about 3,500 mg per day. And maybe that’s not the public health disaster that everyone seems to think it is.

In this recent study, researchers found that people who consumed less than 3,000 mg of sodium per day actually had more cardiovascular events than people who consumed 4,000 to 5,000 mg per day.

For the record, I’m not proposing that we increase the recommended intake for sodium. Not on the basis of this analysis, anyway. But I do think that the single-minded focus on limiting sodium is misguided. As I’ve talked about before, the balance between sodium and potassium appears to be more important than the amount of sodium in the diet. But I also think we need to back the lens up and look at the whole diet instead of one isolated nutrient

Eat Foods, Not Nutrients

If you eat lots of highly processed foods, your diet may be quite high in sodium. But I’m not at all sure that the sodium content is the biggest problem with a diet that’s mostly processed foods.

By the same token, if a decent proportion of your meals and calories are coming from fresh whole foods, your sodium intake is probably going to be a lot lower. But the health advantages of such a diet probably have less to do with the sodium content and more to do with the overall nutrient density of that diet. And if you like to season your fresh whole foods with a healthy sprinkle of salt, I think that’s probably better for you than a diet of highly processed low-sodium foods.

So, here's the answer to your question, Katherine: Unless you engage in a lot of strenuous exercise (or have a medical condition), you probably don’t need to worry about whether you're getting enough sodium. And as long as your diet includes plenty of fresh, whole foods, you can probably season them to taste without worrying about over doing it. 

For those with high blood pressure or whose doctors have put them on low sodium diets for other reasons, I don’t want you to disregard your doctor’s advice based on this podcast. But these recent study results certainly provide an opener for an interesting conversation at your next appointment. In the meantime, here are some ideas for enhancing flavor without adding a lot of sodium.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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