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Nutrition

How to Manage Sodium in Your Diet

Overview

Sodium is an essential nutrient for good health and athletic performance. There is some misunderstanding over what it is, how much of it you need, and what happens if you take in too much or too little. Let’s get the definitions straight first.

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Sodium: A mineral, which is also referred to as an electrolyte.

Chloride: A compound in which chlorine is combined with something else (like sodium).

Sodium Chloride: Table salt made of 40 percent sodium by weight and 60 percent chloride.

Salt: The white substance used to season and preserve foods, also known as table salt and sodium chloride.

It's important to make the distinction between salt and sodium, especially when talking about the recommended amount. The recommended daily intake for salt (about 1,500-2,400 mg) will always be higher than the recommended daily intake for sodium because common table salt only contains 40 percent sodium.

Most Americans consume too much salt, but there is some disagreement over how much is enough. The American Heart Association says we should take in less than 2,400 mg of sodium (not salt) per day. The Institute of Medicine recommends even less—1,500 mg per day. Both numbers may be unnecessarily low for many people in good health.

For athletes, especially endurance athletes, if sodium levels are low, they can run into a number of problems including muscle cramps and hyponatremia. Hyponatremia occurs when sodium levels are too low in relation to the amount of fluids consumed.

Sodium by the Numbers

2.4 grams
The maximum recommended amount of table salt that the average person should consume in a day.

40 percent
The amount of table salt that is sodium.

60 percent
The amount of table salt that is chloride.

75 percent
The amount of dietary sodium in the average diet that comes from processed foods.

110
The mg of sodium in an 8-ounce sports drink needed, along with six percent sugar, for the fluid to be absorbed into the body faster than plain water.

How Sodium Works

Our muscles need sodium to function properly, for nerves to transmit signals, to maintain normal blood pressure and blood volume, and to balance bodily fluids. If that balance is disturbed, problems like heat-related illnesses and hyponatremia may occur.

For the general population, including many athletes, the problem with sodium is too much of it, not too little. The excessive amounts of salt eaten by Americans is serious enough that the American Medical Association is pushing the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw salt’s designation as a "safe" substance.

“The consequence of too much salt is hypertension, or high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke or heart attack,” says Amy Schnabel, M.S., R.D., clinical nutrition manager at the UCLA Medical Center. Ninety percent of Americans will develop hypertension unless they take steps to prevent it.”

The British Medical Journal reported on two studies showing that people who cut back on the amount of salt in their diets by 25-35 percent could reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 25 percent and mortality rates by up to 20 percent.

Use the tips below to reduce the amount of salt in your diet: 

  • Read the sodium content on nutrition labels.
  • Limit daily sodium intake to 1,500-2,400 mg.
  • Ask for unsalted dishes when eating out.
  • Season your food at home with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Remove salt from recipes.

12 Common Sources of Sodium

Most foods have some level of sodium. Below are examples of high-sodium foods that you can limit to reduce sodium intake:

  1. Canned and cured meats
  2. Canned fish
  3. Some lunch meats
  4. Processed cheese and cheese spreads
  5. Canned or bottled vegetable juices
  6. Canned soups and vegetables
  7. Sauerkraut, pickles, and olives
  8. Salted chips, popcorn, pretzels, and crackers
  9. Seasonings that contain monosodium glutamate, celery, onion, garlic salt, or soy sauce
  10. Frozen entrees
  11. Pizza (frozen and fresh)
  12. Fast food 

Hyponatremia

Hyponatremia is low blood sodium (<130 mmol/L). It impacts people who drink too much water, eat too little food, or take medications that deplete the body’s supply of water. It refers to a low concentration of sodium circulating in body fluids (the theory is that too much water dilutes blood sodium).

Symptoms of Hyponatremia

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headaches
  • Disorientation
  • Bloating
  • Puffy face
  • Coma

Prevention and Treatment

Hyponatremia has received a lot of attention lately, but it's relatively rare and can be managed by endurance athletes by balancing fluid and sodium intake. Athletes who participate in endurance events should increase the amount of salt in their diets several days before a competition.

Hyponatremia treatment depends on the cause. Some people simply need to cut back on fluids. Others may need intravenous fluids and medications. In the right amounts, (believed to be 110 mg per 8 ounces) sports drinks and other flavored beverages containing sodium can help prevent dehydration. Dehydration has been directly linked to impaired athletic performance.

Summary

Sodium is an essential nutrient. The key is to consume the right amount, and that depends on your lifestyle, physical condition, and exercise habits. For the average person, keeping sodium intake between 1,500-2,400 mg makes sense, but talk with your doctor or sports nutritionist about your specific needs.


Tags: Beverages, Nutrients, Health, Weight Loss, Food

References

  1. American Dietetic Association
  2. British Medical Journal
  3. International Journal of Sports Nutrition
  4. Kraft Foods
  5. MayoClinic.com
  6. New England Journal of Medicine
  7. UCLA Medical Center
  8. University of Michigan Health System

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