Is Sodium Bad for You or Misunderstood?

Written by Michael Nadeau

NowRx Contributor

sodium and heart image

Sodium is essential for the body to function, but can you have too much of a good thing? Well, yes, which is why there is a lot of misunderstanding around the commonly used mineral.

Here, we’ll demystify this essential element and tell you what you need to know about sodium and your health. 

What is Sodium?

Sodium is a common mineral. You’re probably familiar with it from grade school science classes. On the periodic table, it’s right near the front (at number 11). It’s one of the most frequently found elements in nature.

In the biological sense, sodium is a critical element for humans and animals. Sodium helps to balance out fluids throughout the body. It’s also an essential component to make sure things like nerves and muscles are in sync and working correctly. 

It’s important to note the difference between “sodium” and “salt.” Many people think of table salt when they think of sodium, but sodium is technically different from salt. Sodium is only one of the elements that make up salt. Salt is a combination of sodium (NA) and chloride (Cl). 

What are Normal Sodium Levels?

Normal sodium levels in the blood should be 135 to 145 milliequivalents per liter. 

When someone’s sodium level gets too low (below 135), it’s called “hyponatremia.” This condition is more common in older adults as a result of medications. On the opposite level, high sodium levels (above 145) can result in “hypernatremia.” This condition generally comes from not taking in enough fluids.

Both hyponatremia and hypernatremia can have significant complications if left unchecked. Your primary care physician can run tests to measure your sodium levels and ensure they’re in a healthy place.

How Much Sodium Should You Have in a Day?

How much sodium you should have in a day varies with age. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans breaks down sodium intake by age group. The ideal amount of sodium intake per day for adults? Only around 1,500 milligrams, with a maximum of 2,300 milligrams. 

Recommended sodium intake decreases as age increases. The recommended amount drops to around 1,300 milligrams for individuals ages 51-70. For individuals over 70, the recommended amount is approximately 1,200 milligrams.

The recommended amount of sodium also goes down for younger age groups. Small children (ages 1-3) should have around 1,000 milligrams per day, and children ages 4-8 can have up to 1,200 milligrams per day. 

Many People Consume Too Much Sodium

The reality is most people consume too much sodium, on average, 3,400 milligrams per day, which is well over the suggested limit.

It’s essential to pay close attention to your daily sodium to maintain good health. A diet higher in sodium can lead to a range of health problems. Those problems could include weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more.

The key to managing sodium in your diet? Be aware of how much sodium you’re consuming. Take a look at the nutritional labels and packaging of your foods. Look for foods that say “salt-free” or “sodium-free” on their packaging. That means that they contain less than 5 milligrams of sodium. You can also look for “very low sodium” (35 milligrams or less) or “low sodium” (140 milligrams or less).

Additionally, you can look for alternative, low-sodium versions of your favorite products. “Light in sodium” or “lightly salted” products typically have around 50% less salt than the standard version. “Reduced sodium” products usually have about 25% less than the standard version. 

Better yet, avoid packaged, processed, and pre-prepared foods as much as possible. According to a study of 450 adults in three separate regions across America, these foods contributed to around 70% of Americans’ overall sodium intake.

The bottom line? Take a look at your labels; you might be astonished at how much sodium is in your food. 

How much sodium is too much?

The best way to figure out how much sodium is too much? Look at the recommended daily dosages for your age group. If you’re an adult under age 51, try to stay within the 1,500-2,300 milligram range. If you are older, try to stay around 1300 milligrams. 

To track your sodium intake, study and record your diet for a week and calculate the amount of sodium you’re taking in. If it goes past the recommended amount, search for ways to cut back to fall within the guidelines. Consider removing high-sodium foods (more on these below) and cooking more at home. Remember: for adults, the 2,300-milligram number is the maximum recommended amount. The 1,500-milligram number is a better marker to chase. 

Low sodium foods

There is an extensive range of delicious, low-sodium foods out there to enjoy. Vegetables, for instance, are a great option. Just be sure to opt for fresh produce rather than pre-packaged veggies with added seasonings or sauces. Whole-grain rice and pasta should be low in sodium as well. Dairy foods like milk and eggs are also low in sodium. Fresh meat is another good option; similar to vegetables, make sure you keep the salty seasonings to a minimum. Finally, fruits are an exceptional addition to a low-sodium diet as most fruits have naturally low sodium levels. 

Another tip? If you have to indulge, look for “low-sodium” or “reduced-sodium” versions of some of your favorite high-in-sodium foods, such as potato chips and other salty snacks. 

High sodium foods

A diet that is full of high-sodium foods can detriment your overall health. Right at the top of the list for high sodium foods? Processed snacks like potato chips, tortilla chips, and pretzels. Unfortunately, these snacks are loaded with sodium. Along with those processed treats, items like canned soup, canned vegetables, and salad dressings are also high in sodium.

While you might expect to see high sodium levels in these items, other foods lurk with sodium. Look out for processed deli meats or smoked, cured, or seasoned meats. Most of them are prepared with a lot of salt. Many cheese and butter options can have substantial sodium levels too.

Finally, fast food is chock-full of sodium. Try to make visits to the drive-through an every-so-often treat, at the most. 

So, is sodium bad for you?

No. Sodium is an essential nutrient your body needs to regulate fluids and blood pressure and function at its best. However, as a whole, Americans consume too much sodium by way of processed, packaged foods and eating out. Making an effort to limit these foods and eat more fresh foods from home can help you stay within the recommended guidelines for sodium intake.

If you’re concerned about your sodium intake, talk to your physician. After an examination, they may recommend specific diet changes or other steps to help lower your sodium levels.

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