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If I don’t have high blood pressure or heart disease, do I still need to watch my sodium levels?

If I don’t have high blood pressure or heart disease, do I still need to watch my sodium levels?

Answer: Yes, as the most current pervasive thinking goes, we should all pay attention to our sodium intake and some people more than others. High sodium (salt) intake increases blood pressure and reducing sodium intake decreases it. If you are overweight, have high blood pressure, heart disease (or family history of heart disease) or been diagnosed as sodium sensitive (not necessarily overweight but even small increases in sodium intake leads to sharp rises in blood pressure), you should be especially vigilant regarding sodium consumption. In fact, the American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that cutting 50% of the salt from our daily diets could save 150,000 lives a year. The average person gets roughly twice the recommended sodium intake of 2300 mgs/day (approximately a teaspoon) without adding salt to foods, so be sure to check food labels for sodium content and try not to add salt to already salted or sodium-containing foods.

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Salt in our foods and salt shakers is made up of sodium and chloride, and both of these chemicals (especially sodium) play vital roles in many of life’s functions. This includes keeping the heart beating, muscles and nerves firing and regulating body fluids. Because of our body’s need for sodium we are born with a strong craving for the substance. But as with most all foods or other important nutrients, too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

When daily sodium intake begins to go beyond the body’s normal needs, the body must retain more fluid in order to dilute that extra sodium content and bring it back into balance with the other minerals in our tissues that work in concert to keep our organs functioning properly. In other words, there is a cellular balance of minerals that must remain within a very tight range (just like blood sugar levels must remain relatively constant) or our bodies develop problems like irregular heart, nerve and muscle functioning. Muscle cramping is good example of the body’s mineral content being temporarily out of balance. Now, picture that happening to all parts of the body.

The extra fluid retention used to balance excess sodium also increases our blood volume causing our heart to work much harder to keep the extra blood flowing causing blood pressure to rise.

Many healthy people handle slight increases in salt over the recommended amount very well, but about 30 percent of the population does not. This means their kidneys do not work properly to regularly rid the body of excess sodium and therefore blood pressure remains high until sodium is reduced. The problem is there is no practical reliable way to determine who these people are, so the current recommendation is now not only for the overweight or people with high blood pressure to reduce salt intake – it’s now for everyone.

At the end of the day, unfortunately, food just doesn’t seem to taste good without salt added, which is why food manufacturers generally include a large dose of salt in their products. It’s addicting and hard to break the “taste habit”.

The good news is that there are many appropriate salt substitutes, tasty low-sodium foods and other alternatives to sodium laden foods now appearing on grocery shelves. For more on low sodium lifestyles visit the Mrs. DASH website

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