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Sodium deserves more respect.
The element that, together with chloride, makes up salt, is necessary to help your body maintain fluid balance and also to help your muscles relax and your nerves transmit signals. Sodium also helps maintain normal blood pressure. Today, it often gets a bad rap because Americans eat too many salty, processed foods and therefore consume more sodium than necessary, triggering adverse health effects.
Knowing more about salt can help you gauge if your intake is on target.
WHAT ARE THE BEST FOOD SOURCES?
Since most of us consume quite enough sodium in our diets, this might be one nutrient you need to think about limiting. You can generally assume that fruits, vegetables and legumes are low in sodium unless salt has been added during cooking. (One teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 milligrams, or 2.3 grams, of sodium.)
Most of the sodium consumed in a typical diet comes from salt added in the processing of foods, such as meats, hot dogs and cold cuts; margarine and butter; breads and cereals; chips, nuts and pretzels; canned vegetables and bottled sauces. Other dietary sources of sodium include the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), other food additives, and antacids, many of which contain sodium bicarbonate.
WHAT IF YOU DON'T GET ENOUGH SALT?
A sodium deficiency is unlikely unless you've been experiencing persistent diarrhea or vomiting or excessively using diuretics, or you have kidney problems or other medical conditions that result in the loss of sodium. If it happens, symptoms of a deficiency can include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, muscle cramps, disorientation and fainting.
Excessive fluid intake has been shown to induce a rare condition called hyponatremia, in which sodium is diluted to abnormally low amounts in the body. Marathon runners and other athletes who consume large amounts of water in relatively short periods of time occasionally develop the condition. Symptoms are similar to those of sodium deficiency but can advance into more severe complications including seizures, coma, brain damage and death.
WHAT IF YOU GET TOO MUCH?
Too much sodium in the diet may contribute to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
The American Heart Association's most recent statement on sodium concludes: "A diverse body of evidence has implicated excess sodium intake in...elevated (blood pressure). Independent of its effects on BP, excess sodium intake adversely affects the heart, kidneys, and blood vessels. The potential public health benefits of sodium reduction are enormous and extend to virtually all Americans."
Individuals more sensitive to the effects of high sodium intake include those with existing high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease, the elderly and African-Americans. A diet high in potassium or low in fat can slightly offset increases in blood pressure due to high sodium intake, but it's best to limit intake to recommended levels.
HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED?
The current recommended daily amount of sodium for most adults is no more than 2,300 mg (or about 1 teaspoon of salt). However, sensitive individuals -- people 51 years or older, African-Americans or people with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease -- which includes about half the U.S. population, should limit sodium to 1,500 mg per day.
(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)