What it is, benefits, foods, and more

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A low sodium diet is an eating plan that people can follow to reduce the amount of sodium in their diet. Doctors may recommend a low sodium diet to help manage certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and kidney or liver disease.

Although the body does need some sodium each day, for most people, the required amount is low.

In this article, we provide the current dietary guidelines for daily sodium intake and outline some potential health benefits of a low sodium diet. We also list some foods to eat and avoid when following a low sodium diet.

The body needs a certain amount of sodium to function properly. Sodium helps maintain the body’s fluid balance and plays an important role in muscle and nerve function. However, too much sodium may lead to worsening high blood pressure and associated health complications.

The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise a sodium intake of less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day for people aged 14 years and older. This amount is roughly the equivalent of a teaspoon of salt. The American Heart Association (AHA) agree with this recommendation but suggest aiming for the ideal limit of 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

According to the AHA, the average person in the United States consumes more than 3,400 mg of sodium each day. This amount is well above the recommended level.

Consuming too much sodium can lead to excess sodium in a person’s blood. Sodium draws water into the bloodstream, resulting in a higher blood volume. This increased blood volume triggers a rise in blood pressure, which doctors refer to as hypertension.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), uncontrolled hypertension may increase a person’s risk of the following health complications:

Reducing sodium in the diet may help a person lower their blood pressure or prevent high blood pressure from developing.

A low sodium diet may be beneficial for people with certain health conditions. We have outlined some examples below.

High blood pressure

Sodium increases the amount of water in the bloodstream, thereby raising total blood volume. This increase in blood volume puts extra pressure on the circulatory system, causing high blood pressure.

Reducing dietary sodium may help keep blood pressure within the normal range.

Kidney disease

The kidneys help control sodium levels within the body. Poor kidney function can cause excess sodium and fluid to accumulate in the body. This fluid accumulation can lead to high blood pressure, as well as swelling of the ankles and the area under the eyes.

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) advise that people with kidney disease limit their sodium intake to prevent health complications.

Liver disease

People with certain diseases of the liver may experience hypertension, along with a buildup of fluid in the abdomen known as ascites. Doctors may recommend that people with cirrhosis and certain other diseases of the liver consume a diet low in sodium to prevent or manage ascites.

Cardiovascular disease

Due to the effects of high sodium intake on blood pressure, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that adults reduce the amount of sodium in their diet to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart failure, and coronary heart disease.

However, studies investigating the benefits of a low sodium diet in preventing heart failure from developing or worsening have produced mixed results.

One way to reduce dietary sodium intake is to consume mainly fresh foods, including vegetables, fruits, and animal products.

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) say that people can keep their diet low in sodium by selecting the following foods at the grocery store:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • canned vegetables or beans with a label stating that they are low in sodium or without added salt (people can also rinse canned vegetables before use to remove excess sodium)
  • frozen vegetables without added sauce
  • low sodium salad dressings and condiments
  • breads and grains that are low in sodium
  • dairy that is fat-free or low fat

People may need to take extra care to check the labeling on food products to help them opt for brands with less sodium.

It is also important to avoid using salt to season food. The ODPHP recommend replacing salt with one of these alternative food seasonings:

  • salt-free seasoning blends
  • herbs and spices
  • chopped onion, garlic, or peppers
  • ginger
  • lime or lemon juice

The NKF suggest various food and spice combinations on their website and provide recipes for several salt-free spice blends.

According to the FDA, more than 70% of sodium in the diet comes from prepared or packaged foods. High levels of sodium may also be present in foods that do not taste salty, such as pastries and cereal.

The NKF suggest avoiding the foods below when following a low sodium diet:

  • Salty snacks: These include tortillas, corn chips, and pretzels.
  • Convenience foods: People should avoid canned meals and frozen dinners.
  • High sodium sauces: Teriyaki, soy, and barbecue sauce are examples.
  • Processed foods: These foods include cheese, buttermilk, and canned soup.
  • Cured foods: Bacon, ham, and pickles are all foods that undergo a curing process.
  • Lunch meats: Lunch meats include pastrami, sausage, and corned beef.

Those following a low sodium diet may also want to be cautious when eating at a restaurant. People can ask about the sodium content of a particular meal before ordering. They can also ask the restaurant to prepare the dish without salt and to serve salad dressings or sauces separately.

According to the FDA, people following a low sodium diet should check the nutrition facts labels on food products to find out their sodium content. The nutrition facts label typically lists the sodium content in mg per serving. A person should also check to see how many servings the package contains.

Food packaging may also include other useful labels. Some examples and their associated meanings include:

  • Sodium-free: Contains less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Very low sodium: Contains 35 mg of sodium or less per serving.
  • Low sodium: Contains 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.
  • Reduced sodium: The sodium content is at least 25% lower than that of the original product.
  • Light or lite in sodium: The sodium content is at least 50% lower compared with that of the original product.
  • No-salt added or unsalted: The producers do not add salt during processing, but the product may still contain sodium.

A note about sodium and salt

People sometimes use the terms “sodium” and “salt” interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings.

Table salt, or sodium chloride, is a common source of dietary sodium. Other dietary sources of sodium include:

  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
  • disodium phosphate (food additive)
  • any ingredient with “sodium” or the chemical symbol “Na” in its name

According to the AHA, the average person requires less than 500 mg of sodium a day. Therefore, for most people, a diet containing 1,500 mg of sodium a day should not be a concern. One exception is people who may lose large amounts of sodium through sweating, such as competitive athletes and individuals who work in hot conditions.

Anyone who has questions about following a low sodium diet can ask a healthcare professional for further advice.

Sodium is essential for maintaining the body’s fluid balance, and it plays an important role in nerve and muscle function. However, too much dietary sodium can lead to hypertension and associated health complications.

A low sodium diet can help in the management of various health conditions, including hypertension and diseases of the kidneys and liver.

People looking to follow a low sodium diet should opt for fresh produce wherever possible and choose products with a label stating that they are sodium-free or low in sodium. Anyone considering a low sodium diet can talk with a doctor or dietitian for further advice.

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