by Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

Take this challenge:  Measure how often you use the saltshaker before you have tasted your food.  This eye opening exercise will yield a clue to the amount of sodium you consume daily. While sodium is an essential nutrient for life, too much can harmful.

Here are some facts.  Table salt or sodium chloride (NaCl) is 40% sodium or 2300 milligrams (mg) sodium per teaspoon. The Recommended Daily Value for most individuals is 2300mg with less than 1500 mg recommended for those over 51, persons of African American heritage, or for sufferers of high blood pressure, diabetes or renal disease.  Unbelievably, the typical American diet contains from 3400 to 6000 mg daily. Your body only needs about 250 to 500 mg sodium a day so, as you can imagine, sodium deficiency is rare.

Sodium is required by your body to balance fluid levels inside and outside of the cells.  It provides channels for nerve signals and helps contract and relax muscles.  But what happens when your intake is higher than recommended?  If your body retains excess sodium, there can be an increase in body fluids that puts a strain on organs and systems such as heart and circulation.  This increases your risk of heart attack and stroke and damages artery walls. Research shows a relationship between consuming too much salt and elevated blood pressure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states 67 million American adults have high blood pressure – that’s one in every three!  Now concerns are being raised about increased blood pressure in children.  These problems are typical of Western countries and are not seen in countries were diets are low in sodium.

How did salt, which historically was traded as a precious mineral or spice, become a health risk?  The answer is that it has changed from a vehicle to preserve food to a diet staple.  Today, the Standard American Diet (SAD) delivers approximately eight to ten times more than your body needs. The CDC reports that restaurant and processed foods are responsible for 77% of dietary sodium.  Foods with naturally occurring sodium provide 12%, and sodium added to meals prepared at home and while eating are responsible for the remaining 11%.

You can control much of this.  Meat and milk contain natural sodium but most extra sodium is added as a preservative or for flavoring and texture.  Contributors include salad dressings, cured meats, cheese, bouillon, prepared soups, soy sauce, meat tenderizers, prepared tomato sauces, olives, pickles, fast foods, restaurant meals and many snack foods.

What can you do to reduce your sodium intake and improve your health?  Read the Nutritional Facts Label on prepared foods you buy and look for sodium.  Some foods may not taste salty but will have an excess amount of it anyway. In his book, Just Tell Me What to Eat, Timothy Harlan, MD suggests the “20/5 Rule”.  If the per serving sodium content is less than 5% of the Daily Recommended Value it is a lower sodium product but if it is more than 20% then consider it a higher sodium product.  Sodium containing ingredients on the label such as MSG, baking soda, baking powder, and disodium phosphate will give you additional clues as to high sodium content. Watch “serving sizes”.  Servings may be smaller than you think or smaller than the amount you typically eat thereby increasing your sodium uptake over what the label states.  Simply cooking your own meals could cut much of that 77% the CDC references.

Because salt is one of the five basic tastes the body recognizes you can slowly retrain your taste buds and reduce your dependency. Over time your taste buds will adjust.  So, break the saltshaker habit. Taste it before you shake it.  Even better, why not simply remove the shaker from the table?

Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way.  Reach her  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.

As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.