To lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, the American Heart Association recommends that you consume under 1500 milligrams of sodium per day. But how much do you really need? To put things into perspective, the National Academy of Sciences tells you that if you’re healthy your physiological need is just 250 milligrams- so under normal circumstances you simply don’t require that much sodium. Furthermore, according to dietician Jeff Novick, if 100% of your diet consists of fresh fruits and vegetables – assuming you’re eating a normal amount of calories – your intake of naturally occurring sodium would be 500 milligrams. After all, just one cup of spinach provides you with 79 mg of sodium, four ounces of celery gives you 115 mg, and less than five ounces of honeydew melon contains 30 mg. The fact is that sodium is naturally present in most foods and, unless you are suffering from a health issue, it is impossible for you to get too little of it. The problem is that you are probably getting too much without even realizing it. The average sodium intake in North America is 3000-5000 mg per day.
The Unconscious Addict.
Last week I consulted with a client who proudly informed me that she’s been “watching her sodium intake for years”. But, once I reviewed her food log, it turned out that she was consuming over 5000 milligrams per day! This wasn’t the first time that I had a client’s jaw drop to the floor in complete shock and dismay. So, how does this happen? How does someone who is watching her sodium intake still manage to consume over 3 times the maximum limit deemed safe? Are you also making this mistake? Here are some tips to help you transition from an unconscious sodium addict to a well informed consumer.
Tip #1: The Salt Shaker Isn’t To Blame.
Only about 10% of the sodium in your diet comes from the salt shaker and what you add while cooking at home. The biggest chunk of your sodium intake – close to 80% – comes from processed foods and restaurant meals. Like my client who, without realizing, was consuming over 5000 mg of sodium per day, you can throw the salt shaker away and still be unconsciously addicted to salt. For example, we all know that a pad Thai at Thai Express contains a whopping 2538 mg of sodium, but did you know that a serving of Campbell’s vegetable soup has 890 mg of sodium? And you thought vegetable soup was healthy! V8 100% vegetable juice, another horrible product, contains 920 mg of sodium for just 70 calories – and I’ve seen hospitals serve this to their patients. Two slices of popular brands of whole grain bread have about 400 mg of sodium. So, it is clear that reducing sodium intake has very little to do with the salt shaker, and more to do with your overall diet – and that’s even if you stay clear of cured meats, cheese, and junk food.
Tip #2: Never Trust The Front Label.
For my lecture on how to properly interpret food labels I ask my clients to bring me 5 products that they consume on a regular basis. My sodium addict brought in a jar of Organic Kalamata Olives, and as she handed it to me she proudly proclaimed “they are organic, I always buy organic”.
True enough, the first thing you would notice on the front label is the word “Organic” written in a large clear font. This product was obviously purchased at a health store where many unsuspecting health conscious individuals do their grocery shopping. My tip is ignore the front label (sorry to all the marketing experts out there) and quickly turn to the back where you will find the Nutrition Facts. I pointed to the Nutrition Facts to show my client that with every 3 olives she was ingesting 830 mg of sodium! She normally consumed anywhere from 6-10 olives per sitting which equates to 1720 – 2767 mg of sodium. In other words, if the only thing she ate the entire day were 10 of these olives she would be almost doubling the recommended limit for sodium. Health food stores do carry some good products and it is very important to buy organic, however, in order to make better choices you still have to read the Nutrition Facts and ignore the marketing on the front label.
Tip #3: The 1:1 Calorie/Sodium Rule.
Apply this rule whenever you are buying any product that has a label. Turn to the Nutrition Facts and look at how many calories there are per serving. Then scroll down to see how much sodium you are getting. The amount of sodium in milligrams should not exceed the amount of calories. For example, if a product contains 100 calories per serving the sodium content should be 100 mg or less. I like this rule because it’s simple and clients can begin applying it immediately.
Now, let’s say that you are consuming 2500 calories per day. If you follow the 1:1 ratio of calories to sodium you would still be ingesting 2500 mg of sodium. That’s too much. But then again, your diet should NOT consist primarily of packaged processed food. The most important point of this article is that you should always try to reduce the amount of processed foods that you consume. Your diet should mainly consist of fresh vegetables, whole grains and legumes, all of which naturally contain an ideal amount of sodium that your body requires to function optimally. You see, with very few exceptions, you don’t need to watch your sodium intake when you are eating unprocessed whole foods. But, when you have to buy packaged foods, or anything that comes with a label, do your best to adhere to the 1:1 sodium rule. For some products, such as soy sauce or canned olives, finding versions that pass the 1:1 test is impossible, but you can still find alternatives that aren’t too bad and dilute them when possible. The good news is that you will be able to find brands of many items that do pass the 1:1 test, and it’s up to you to grab the better product from the shelf.
So now it’s your turn. Let’s see you put the 1:1 rule into action: if you choose to buy crushed tomatoes instead of making your own pasta sauce from scratch, which of the following two products below would you choose?
Sodium Isn’t The Only Problem.
Every few years the media begins to obsess with one nutrient just to keep your attention. It’s time to move away from such a reductionist approach to health and nutrition. Whether it’s fat, gluten, sugar, sodium, or any mineral or vitamin, no single nutrient on its own is ever as important as the effect of the sum of all the nutrients that you are consuming with every bite. Of course, consuming a high amount of sodium is bad and its effects are felt almost immediately, but sodium alone is not to blame. There is a larger picture to look at to ensure that you are supplying your body with what it needs to function optimally.
A poor overall diet, lacking in proper foods and high in harmful chemicals, is the reason that people today are prone to developing chronic diseases. Even health conscious individuals that know how to read food labels fall prey to health issues that are associated with choosing the wrong kinds of food. For example, my short video lecture, Exposing The Whole Grain Myth, shows you that even if you purchase whole grain breads or breakfast cereals that are low in sugar and sodium, there are other factors that you must consider if health is your main concern. When grains are not sprouted they maintain high amounts of anti-nutrients that lower your absorption of important minerals. Sprouting grains serves to magnify their nutritional content, activate enzymes, release anti-nutrients, and improve your digestion. Similar to my video exposing the truth about processed grains, my article on commercially sold “Almond Milks” teaches you about the dangers of synthetic nutrients that are added to your food without being properly labeled. And what about the canned crushed tomato example that I gave above – Is Eden’s product better than Hunts because it is lower in sodium? Actually, regardless of their sodium content, canned tomatoes are extremely acidic and should be generally avoided. Properly ripened fresh raw tomatoes are your best choice especially if you are suffering from acidity issues. And finally, the worst culprit of them all, our dependance on animal protein is the strongest and most consistent dietary factor linked with chronic disease- whether we add salt or not, and even if we always choose the leaner low-fat option.
The bottom line is that a diet rich in fresh, unprocessed, plant based whole foods is the best way to provide your body with the thousands of chemicals, including sodium, that it needs to sustain good health. And, as it seems nature intended, these nutrients are often naturally present in ideal ratios. So one day, when you improve your entire approach to eating well, you won’t have to read food labels anymore. But until then, watching your sodium intake is a good rule of thumb.
Naturopath, Health Educator
Nutrition & Exercise Specialist