Shake your salt habit

I have been often asked if table salt and sodium are the same. What we commonly consume as “table salt” is often used interchangeably with sodium but in fact table salt is a crystal-like compound found abundantly in nature, while sodium is a mineral which is found in table salt.

Table salt is the primary source of sodium and increased consumption of sodium is associated with hypertension and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. However, sodium is an important mineral required for maintaining fluid balance and certain nerve and muscle functions. Hence, eliminating sodium from your diet completely may not be a good idea. 

Sodium as one of the ingredients

Sodium has multiple uses as a food ingredient for purposes such as preservation, curing of meat, retaining moisture, thickening and also to enhance the flavour of the food. Most packaged, canned or ready to eat foods are high in sodium. When you look at individual food labels some of the commonly found names to watch out for are monosodium glutamate, sodium bicarbonate (soda bicarb / baking soda), sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate since they all contain sodium and contribute to the total amount of “sodium”. 

Surprisingly, food products that do not taste salty can still contain sodium in high amounts. Hence taste alone can not be considered as an indicator of the sodium content of the food product. To name a few - pastries, breakfast cereals, breads, bakery products etc. 

Sodium in association with heart, kidney disorders

Our kidneys regulate the sodium levels in our body by excreting the excess sodium from our body in the form of urine. If kidneys are unable to eliminate enough sodium out of our body especially when the diet is high in sodium, it builds up in the blood. Sodium ions have a tendency to absorb water which gets retained. This in turn increases the blood volume causing extra pressure on the heart to pump blood. This increases the pressure on arteries which in the long run can increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke and kidney disorders. In addition, blood pressure generally rises as we grow older, so limiting your sodium intake becomes even more important each year. 

According to WHO, high sodium consumption (>2 grams of sodium or 1 tsp of salt/day) can contribute to high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Indians on an average consume about 7-10 grams of salt in a day which is at least three times higher than the prescribed levels according to WHO. 

 “There is an urgent need for national level strategies and effective salt reduction policies to achieve the global target of a 30 per cent reduction in mean population salt intake by 2025,” said Sudhir Raj Thout, research fellow at the George Institute for Global Health India. 

So it would be worth reducing sodium and therefore salt intake and below are some ways you could do this.

Ways to reduce sodium intake from your diet
  • Most of the sodium comes from highly processed, packaged foods and ‘junk’ food such as pizzas, burgers, french fries. Limit or avoid your intake of such foods. Read the nutritional labels carefully while buying food products.

  • Rinse sodium-containing foods from cans such as canned vegetables, tuna, baked beans, olives etc to reduce sodium content.

  • Use olive oil, vinegar, herbs to season your salads instead of store bought dressings.

  • Buy fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish etc as they also contain potassium and magnesium apart from other vitamins and minerals which in turn may control our blood pressure

  • Prepare your own food whenever you can. This limits the use of packaged sauces, mixes, and “instant” products (including flavored rice, instant noodles, and ready-made pasta).

The bottom line is, sodium is an important mineral which is required for certain bodily functions. Talk to your dietician or a healthcare provider about the requirements or ways to control your excessive sodium intake through diet in turn controlling your blood pressure.

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