How can I make sure I'm getting the right amount of salt?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Yes, your body needs sodium. Salt regulates blood pressure and keeps your muscles and nerves humming. But like Christmas carols crooned by chipmunks, more isn't better. A small percent of people with high blood pressure are extremely salt-sensitive. If you're among them, sodium launches your blood pressure into the stratosphere. Halving your salt intake cuts your heart-attack risk by 30% or more. (It also reduces your risk of some cancers.)

A third of adults who aren't extremely salt-sensitive also have hypertension. They, too, need to watch salt, though not as intensely. For everyone else, we strongly believe many other nutrients are far more important. That doesn't mean we think it's fine to eat "salt bombs," but you don't need to count every milligram either.

To make sure you're getting the right amount of salt, follow these simple steps:
  • First, test your salt sensitivity. Get an inexpensive home blood-pressure monitor, which costs about $20 at a big-box store. Take a couple of readings, then follow the eating guidelines below for four weeks. Re-check. If your BP has dropped, chances are salt was driving it up. (Note: Your risk is genetically higher if you're African-American.) Keep sodium below 1,500 mg per day (about 3/4 teaspoon of table salt).
  • Rearrange your plate. Put fresh produce and whole grains front and center, lean protein (fish, skinless white meat poultry) and no-fat dairy on the side. Eating this way gives you plenty of pressure-lowering potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and automatically knocks salty processed foods off your plate (80% of our sodium is from processed and restaurant foods).
  • Sidestep the top 10 salt bombs -- the biggest sources of sodium in our diets are pizza, white bread, processed cheese, hot dogs, spaghetti with pre-made sauce, ham, ketchup, salty snacks, noodle soups, and mac 'n' cheese.
  • Watch your waist. There's evidence that inflammation fueled by body fat, especially belly fat, makes cells soak up sodium, which can ignite blood pressure. Half of all people with high BP are overweight.
  • Put sodium in its place. Unless you're salt-sensitive, put it low on your list of healthy-eating priorities. Worry first about getting enough good omega-3 fats from nuts, fish, canola oil; plenty of 100% whole grains; lots of fruits and vegetables; and nearly no saturated fat, trans fats, or added sugars/syrups.
  • Walk every day. Just 30 minutes daily cuts your odds for salt-triggered high blood pressure by 38%.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.