The recent report of sodium intake by the Canadian government brought alarming news to our households. We still consume too much salt. According to the report, Canadians exceed the recommended maximum daily intake of sodium: the recommended intake is 2300mg and on average we consume 2760 mg a day. Males take in more sodium than females, and males of age category 14 to 50 consume by far the most sodium, nearly doubling the recommended daily intake. So, what does that mean to our health?
The Good: Role of Sodium in Human Body
Our bodies need sodium. It’s an electrolyte. It takes on a positive charge when dissolved into our body and is necessary to maintain blood pressure. Sodium dissolves in our blood and attracts and holds water thus helping maintain the liquid portion of the blood.
It’s also an integral part of our nerve and muscle function. Both muscles and nerves require electrical currents to work properly. Muscles and nerve cells generate electrical currents by controlling the flow of electrically charged molecules, including sodium. For muscle cells, these electrical currents stimulate contraction of the muscle.
Nerves, on the other hand, need electrical activity to communicate with other nerves. Cells use molecular pumps to keep sodium levels outside the cell high. When an electrical current is needed, cells can allow the positively charged sodium ions into the cell, generating a positive electrical current.
Our kidneys are the regulators of sodium. They release it in the urine when the levels are too high and hold on to the water when the levels are too low.
The Bad: Too Much or Too Little Sodium
Studies have confirmed that high sodium intake increases blood pressure. Sodium attracts water. Excess amounts of sodium increase the amounts of water, and therefore increases the volume of blood. The blood pressure will rise because the blood vessels cannot accommodate the increased blood volume. This creates more work for the heart. Over time this can lead to stiff blood vessels, heart attack and stroke as well as heart failure.
When there is not enough sodium in your body, things go wrong as well. Hyponatremia is a condition where there is too little sodium in the blood. The symptoms vary from person to person and can include weakness, fatigue, nausea, headache, and vomiting. Losing sodium quickly is a medical emergency. It can cause loss of consciousness, brain seizures and coma.
The Ugly: Where does sodium come from in diets of Canadians?
Many foods contribute to sodium intake. Bakery products, which include: breads, muffins, cookies, desserts, crackers, and granola bars are the top food sources (20%) of sodium. Mixed dishes such as pizza, lasagna, refrigerated or frozen entrées and appetizers, frozen potatoes and prepared salads are the second most important contributors to dietary sodium (19%), followed by processed meat products such as sausages, deli meats, canned meats, chicken wings, burgers and meatballs (11%). Together, these 3 broad categories account for half of all the sodium Canadians consume. Other important contributors include cheeses (7%), soups (6%), sauces and condiments (5%), fat, oils, spreads, and dressings (3%), snacks, such as chips and pretzels (3%), and fish and seafood products (2%).
What should you do about your sodium intake?
We can say that it is safer to stay on the lower side of sodium intake. However, this can be very individual. You need to consider your overall health, fitness and nutrition. The studies about salt intake so far have only been successful in establishing the link between high salt intake and high blood pressure. It has also been proven that people with high blood pressure benefit from lower sodium intake. So if you have high blood pressure make sure you are eating a low sodium diet. The current recommended low dose is about 1100 mgs, which is a little less than half of teaspoon of table salt.
We should also consider the sources of sodium in our diets. Processed foods have been linked to many health issues and continue to be high in sodium. Cutting out processed foods, eating fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly and sleeping well are still the pillars of good health. Read the labels of the food you are purchasing in the supermarket. The Canadian government is doing the right thing by proposing to the food manufacturers to use front package labels for foods that are high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat. All those can bring harm if consumed excessively.
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