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How Much Salt Is Too Much?

Posted September 2, 2014 6:25 a.m. EDT

Salt is often demonized as a poison that you must eliminate completely from any healthy food plan. However, the truth is more complex. Salt, or sodium chloride by its scientific name, is our primary source of sodium, which is necessary for human functioning. Too much salt can have a serious harmful effect on the body … but so can too little. Most people get too much or not enough salt in their diet. Like Goldilocks with her bowls of porridge, the trick is finding the amount that is "just right."

Too Much

If you have, or are at risk for, high blood pressure (hypertension), it is important not to overdo your sodium intake. The American Heart Association recommends reducing salt to approximately half the amount consumed by the average adult in the US, especially in cases of hypertension. However, their recommendations do not include eliminating salt completely from the diet. What's more, in recent years they have modified their recommendations to call for increased consumption of potassium. Potassium encourages the body to excrete salt, lowering sodium levels. It also encourages the walls of blood vessels to relax; relaxed blood vessels mean lower blood pressure.

Salt diabetes (diabetes insipidus), caused by malfunction of the osmostat, is a relatively rare disease, which requires strict monitoring of the body's sodium level.

Hypernatremia, a low liquid to salt ratio, is another condition involving excessive sodium in the system. It is caused by dehydration or excessive salt ingestion. Although it is potentially fatal, an adult would have to eat almost a cup of salt for this to be a risk.

Too Little

Though hypertension is a more widely known medical condition, it is possible to suffer from low blood pressure (hypotension). Its symptoms include dizziness, fainting, mental confusion, and potentially even death. Interestingly athletes and long distance runners tend to have lower blood pressure than the general population. Because of the amount sweat they lose while exercising, they need to monitor their sodium levels carefully to avoid a dangerous drop. Part of the treatment plan for low blood pressure may entail upping your salt intake, frequently in conjunction with an increase in fluids. But always check with your health care professional before making any major changes in your diet.

Just Right

The US National Institutes of Health prescribe a maximum consumption of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for the average adult in good health, and bump that down to 1,500 for people with high blood pressure They suggest lowering the amount even more for adults with cirrhosis of the liver, congestive heart failure, or kidney disease, although they don't state a specific amount. The British National Health Service goes a step further in advising 2,400 milligrams of sodium (which translates to 6 grams of salt) for those 11 years of age and older, 2,000 mg for 7- to 10-year-olds, 1,200 mg for ages 4 to 6, and 800 mg for toddlers. As for a minimum requirement, Health Canada recommends 1,500 mg for adolescents and adults to age 50, with proportionally smaller amounts for young children and seniors.

How Much Sodium Do Foods Contain?

When you are trying to track the amount of sodium you consume, it can be difficult to determine how much salt the foods you eat actually contain. The best way to get an idea of how much sodium you are taking in is by reading labels, familiarizing yourself with amounts in common foods, and measuring portion sizes. A general rule of thumb is that processed foods contain higher levels than their more natural counterparts. For example, a half-cup serving of fresh green beans cooked without salt contains a negligible 3 mg of sodium, while the same amount of canned offers up a substantial 185 mg. And since organic vegetables are so flavorful without added seasoning, you just might want to plant an urban veggie garden, with green beans twining up your backyard Philadelphia fence.

Laura Firszt writes for

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