What’s the Skinny on Sodium?

By now you've probably heard over and over again how people need to decrease the amount of sodium they're consuming on a daily basis. Well, that’s all fine and good if we only really knew why sodium was important to keep in balance. I am much more apt to pay attention to vitamins and minerals that are either helpful or harmful to my health when I really understand how the body is responding to that mineral. So if you are anything like me and want to know what the big deal is about sodium, then I hope you find this helpful.

So really, what is sodium? Well, incase you weren’t aware it isn’t table salt.  Salt and sodium are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.  Sodium is the 6th most abundant element on the earth. While salt does contain sodium, it is comprised of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. 1 tsp of table salt provides approximately 2300mg of sodium. Which is already well over the daily recommended amount. In regards to food we don’t just find sodium in processed foods, but minimal amounts are also found naturally occurring in whole foods. Who knew?? So when you are logging that broccoli and your sodium increases, that’s why. Biologically our body rids itself of sodium through urine and sweat. That is how our body keeps our fluids in balance.

Sodium really isn’t the root of all evil in regards to health, like you may think. It is extremely important in maintaining fluid balance in the body. Sodium is an electrolyte that carry’s an electric charge when dissolved and this electric charge is important for nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction and cardiac function. Sodium is also necessary for fluid regulation, nutrient transport, blood pressure regulation, and tissue growth. Sodium has a big job to do in your body to maintain health, but increased levels also have negative side effects that are important to keep in mind.

High levels of sodium can lead to increased blood pressure as the blood is attempting to rid the body of excess sodium and fluid. The kidneys also play a large roll in filtering out sodium that our bodies don’t need through urine. Therefore, it is very important to focus on kidney health as well. Increased levels of sodium also can lead to excessive thirst and we need to combat that with getting more water into the body to continue the regulation of the sodium to water balance. There is a reason as well that we feel more bloated when we have consumed a high level of sodium. It causes the body to hold excess fluid in the cells. This is often termed as “water retention” and can lead to that bloated feeling especially after eating at a restaurant where the foods are extremely high in sodium.

This is all great information to know, but how can we practically limit the amount of sodium we are consuming on a daily basis? Well, here are some easy way to tackle lowering your consumption:

  1. Limit the amount of processed foods bought and consumed.
  2. Limit eating out as much as possible. Restaurants use a lot of frozen foods and additional salt for preservation and making food more palatable.
  3. Limit the amount of canned foods, snack foods, frozen meats, and deli meats purchased.  If you do buy canned food for convenience, look for “no salt added” on the label to limit sodium.
  4. Increase the amount of whole foods you are eating and season with salt yourself.  Remember to stay creative in the kitchen!
  5. Give your food the fridge test. If it lasts in the fridge for days or weeks that’s a sure sign of too much sodium in that food.
  6. Choose “fresh frozen” vegetables if you are buying in the frozen section. Frozen veggies also work great in an air fryer!
  7. Choose spices and seasonings that do not list sodium as an ingredient on the label.
  8. If you are going to buy prepackaged or labeled food, look closely at the sodium content!
  9. Be careful with condiments. They can be sneaky! Look for a reduced sodium option when shopping.
  10. Use fresh onion, garlic, spices, citrus juices and vinegars to flavor foods. It can be fun to try new flavors as well.
  11. Use cooking techniques such as grilling, braising, roasting and sautéing in order to enhance the natural flavors in foods without having to add a ton of salt or seasonings.

Author: Maggie Shaffer, Black Iron Nutrition Coach, @maggieshaffer