Salt and sodium are necessary for survival. Without salt, we couldn't live. Sodium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that our bodies use to transmit signals between nerve cells, maintain fluid balance, and relax and contract muscles.
As with any other nutrient, it's possible to have too much sodium. The reason we so often hear about the ills of sodium is that it's so prevalent in food. With our modern foods, it is very easy to consume not just adequate amounts of salt each day, but way too much.
You may not need to cut back or go on a low-sodium diet, but as a trainer, it's important to understand salt in the diet, how much is the right amount for the average person, and who may need to cut back.
Salt is a chemical word for any compound made from a negative and a positive ion. In food we refer to sodium chloride as salt. It is sodium that is the essential nutrient in this pair. You can tell how much sodium you are consuming by reading the nutrition labels on foods. It is listed in milligrams per serving.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention American, adults should eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. In reality, we eat more than 3,400 milligrams each day. The American Heart Association actually recommends that people go even lower, eating no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.
It's important to understand, though, that these lower recommended limits may be too low for anyone who sweats a lot. This certainly applies to athletes and anyone you train who works out every day. It is possible to eat too little salt.
For normal, healthy adults, there may be some benefits to eating less sodium, such as reduced heart disease, lower blood pressure, and a healthier diet overall.
The kidneys are very good at regulating the sodium in our body by holding on to it when levels are low and excreting it in urine when levels are high. But, when we eat too much salt the kidneys can't keep up and we retain water.
The volume of blood in the body increases and this can force the heart to work harder and put pressure on blood vessels. Increased blood pressure puts you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and other health issues.
To learn more about heart disease and how exercise can combat the silent killer, check out this ISSA blog post.
There have been some studies that link high salt levels in the diet with increased cancer risk. For instance, a study that looked at several million people found that an increase in salt intake of five grams per day correlated with a 12 percent increase in the risk of developing stomach cancer.
The risk associated with stomach cancer may be explained by damage that salt causes in the stomach. Another explanation is that when you eat so much salt in a day you are probably eating a lot of processed, unhealthy foods. By focusing on cutting back on sodium, your diet will naturally improve. You will have to give up many processed foods and eat more whole vegetables, fruits, and grains, which naturally have little sodium.
There are some definite benefits for most people in cutting back on sodium. But as with any dietary change, it's important to look at potential risks. Because salt is a necessary nutrient, it is possible to have too little.
A deficiency in sodium is called hyponatremia and it can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps and weakness, and even seizures and coma. For most people, it is difficult to reach this state, but for athletes, it is more common.
It can occur when you are drinking a lot of water, such as during a long, tough workout, and not taking in any electrolytes. During a marathon, for instance, not using electrolyte drinks can be risky. Generally, though, this dangerous state is not typical when simply trying to cut back on daily sodium.
Check out this ISSA comprehensive guide to hydration to learn more about safe and smart hydration practices when working out.
The only reason to eat a truly low-sodium diet is if you have a specific medical issue and if your doctor recommends it. If you have clients considering a low-sodium diet or who have any of these conditions, make sure they see their doctors to talk about it.
Excessive sodium causes the body to retain water. The fluid volume of the body goes up, and that means more pressure is put on your blood vessels. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and other conditions. Reducing salt in the diet lowers blood pressure.
Anyone with kidney disease likely needs to eat a low-sodium diet. Compromised kidneys cannot remove the excess sodium from the body efficiently. Too much sodium can really build up and cause even more damage to the kidneys.
Heart disease can also cause the kidneys to lose function. Anyone with heart disease probably needs to cut back on sodium in order to prevent dangerous fluid buildup and to protect the kidneys.
For most people, cutting back on salt in the diet is not a bad idea. If you are going to try going low sodium, or have clients interested in doing it, you need to know where salt is lurking and where to make cuts.
The average American gets 70 percent of their daily intake of sodium from processed foods and restaurant foods.1 Some of them don't even taste salty, so it can be tricky to know how much sodium is in a serving without reading the label. Here are some basic processed foods most of us eat and an approximate amount of sodium for each:
A slice of bread can have up to 230 milligrams of sodium.
A slice of pizza contains between 370 and 730 milligrams of sodium.
A bowl of cereal with milk may have about 400 milligrams of sodium.
Just one serving of canned soup can have up to 800 milligrams of sodium.
Most of the salt we eat may come from processed foods, but most people are also guilty of adding extra salt to foods. That salt shaker on the table can add salt on top of salt when eating pre-made foods. Just one teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 milligrams of sodium, just about the limit for one day.
Once you are aware of salt, how much you should be consuming, and where you can find it, cutting back isn't too difficult. These simple steps will make a big difference:
Cut out some of your processed foods and substitute with whole foods. Buy plain, uncooked rice instead of the packet of cooked, flavored rice, for instance.
Read labels for sodium content and choose options with less salt.
Eat more fresh or frozen produce and less canned and processed foods.
When buying frozen produce, avoid those with sauce or seasoning included.
Use less salt when cooking at home. Replace salt with herbs and spices for more flavor.
Cut back on condiments, like ketchup, mustard, pickles, and dressings, or make your own so you can control salt content.
Cutting back on salt is not a bad idea for overall health. You may not need a low-sodium diet, but most Americans could benefit from at least eating less. It's not hard to do once you are educated about salt and where it's hidden in so many foods.
Want to help more clients with their nutrition and diets? Check out the ISSA's nutrition course and start helping clients meet all of the fitness and health goals.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, October). Get the Facts: Sodium and the Dietary Guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_dietary_guidelines.pdf
American Heart Association. (2018, May 23). How Much Sodium Should I Eat Per Day? Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/how-much-sodium-should-i-eat-per-day
Fang, X., Wei, J., He, X., An, P., Wang, H., Jiang, L., Shao, D., Liang, H., Li, Y., Wang, F., and Min, J. (2015). Landscape of dietary factors associated with risk of gastric cancer: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Eur. J. Cancer.51(18), 2820-32. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26589974
Wang, M., Moran, A.E., Lui, J., Qi,Y., Xie, W., Tzong, K., and Zhao, D. (2015). A Meta-Analysis of Effect of Dietary Salt Restriction on Blood Pressure in Chinese Adults. Glob. Heart.10(4), 291-99. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26014655