Is This Condiment Hurting Your Heart?

Is This Condiment Hurting Your Heart?

You’re probably eating way more sodium than experts recommend.

Salt—more specifically, sodium—is found in every food from A (anchovies) to Z (ziti). It’s essential for your body, especially your heart, but too much can raise blood pressure and put you at risk for heart disease.

The FDA believes that Americans eat too much sodium. In June 2016, the agency released voluntary sodium reduction targets for the food industry, aiming to drop Americans' average intake from 3,400 milligrams per day (mg/d) to 2,300 mg/d. The American Heart Association applauded the move.

About two-thirds of Americans have either hypertension or prehypertension, and lowering the amount of sodium you consume is one of the main recommendations given by everyone from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to many cardiologists and family doctors.

But is the sodium situation really as dire as some groups believe? Maybe not, says cardiologist Roger Shammas, MD, of Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “In general, a healthy individual usually can handle excessive sodium and will excrete it through the urine,” says Dr. Shammas. So, when is sodium dangerous, and what foods are the biggest offenders?

Sodium’s role in the body
Some sodium is essential for the heart and other tissues to work correctly but the amount of salt you actually need is only about half of a potato chip. Sodium also helps to regulate the volume of the blood—how much space plasma takes up in blood vessels. The more volume, the harder the blood presses against the walls of the blood vessels. That’s blood pressure.

“Excessive sodium can lead to high blood pressure,” says Shammas, by increasing the volume of blood in the vessels. High blood pressure hurts the heart and circulatory system in two ways. First, the blood vessels themselves can be damaged by the extra pressure, making them more vulnerable to plaque buildup and coronary artery disease. Second, the heart has to work harder to pump blood. 

How much is too much?
The FDA recommends that most people eat 2,300 mg/day of salt, while acknowledging that the average daily intake is closer to 3,400 mg.  Some experts contend that everyone should stay below the guidelines, but Shammas believes that while 3,400 mg/day is probably more than people should consume, healthy people won’t be hurt by a high-salt diet.

“Typically physicians don’t get involved in regulating sodium consumption unless someone has congestive heart failure or hypertension,” Shammas says. “If someone has a propensity for congestive heart failure—either the heart is too weak or too stiff—extra sodium can cause problems with fluid retention.”

Other people who may need less sodium are those who are salt-sensitive, about half of everyone who has high blood pressure and about a quarter of everyone without. The blood pressure of someone who is salt-sensitive reacts strongly when sodium is increased or decreased in the diet. Researchers aren’t sure what causes salt sensitivity but believe it to have a strong genetic component, and its effects appear to get stronger with age.

Research is beginning to question the effectiveness of low salt diets for lowering high blood pressure. A 16-year study of more than 2,600 people suggests that people who consumed less than 2,500 mg/day of sodium actually had higher blood pressure than people who ate more.

About 75 percent of your sodium intake comes from packaged and processed foods, according to the FDA. So, if you want to cut your sodium, pay attention to labels, especially for foods in which salt is used as a preservative. “[Beware of] buying any food that stays edible for a long time,” he says. “Anything in a can or a package, and certain meats like ham, bacon and pork all have elevated sodium. You also need to be careful in restaurants. They often add a lot of salt for flavor.”

If you want to save on salt (and calories), try cooking at home. Follow this home-cooking cheat sheet from RealAge co-creator Dr. Michael Roizen to slash your sodium consumption.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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