Salt – How much do we need?

By Karin Boode, PhD

Although salt (sodium chloride) is the main source of sodium for our body, it certainly is not the only one. There are other common sources of sodium, especially in processed foods. Here are a few that I am sure you will recognize:

Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG)Flavor enhancer (Accent is 100% MSG)
Baking PowderLeavening agent (120 mg sodium per 1/4 tsp)
Baking SodaLeavening agent (150 mg sodium per 1/8 tsp)
Di-sodium PhosphateAnti-caking agent
Sodium AlginateAs a thickener in soups and jellies
Sodium Nitrite or NitratePreservative helps retain color in meats and fish

After seeing this list I am sure you realize that salt and sodium are not interchangeable. But since salt is the main source of sodium it is safe (for most of us) to focus on salt when we strive to reduce the sodium levels in our body.

Let me start by saying that sodium is not all bad. Your body needs sodium to function properly. These are the three main functions:

  • Sodium helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body
  • It helps transmit nerve impulses
  • Sodium influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles

Your kidneys regulate the amount of sodium in your body. When sodium levels are low, your kidneys hold on to the sodium. When sodium levels are high, your kidneys will excrete the excess sodium in urine. However, if your kidneys cannot get rid of the excess sodium fast enough, the sodium will accumulate in your blood. Sodium holds water, which means your blood volume increases. This, in turn, will make it necessary for your heart to work harder to pump the blood through the blood vessels. As a result the pressure in your arteries increases. That is why we need to be careful how much sodium we consume. The question is “how much is too much?”


Sodium requirements are different for different people. Factors like growth stage, sweat loss and medical conditions (e.g. vomitting and diarrhea) play a role. If you are a generally healthy person under the age of 50 a daily intake of 1500 mg of sodium should be sufficient, unless you are losing sodium through exercise and sweating.

If you are between 50 and 70 years of age, the recommended daily sodium intake reduces to 1300mg, and if you are 70 or older your daily max is 1200mg.

This may sound like a lot of sodium, but if you realize that a teaspoon of salt contains 2400mg of sodium it should not surprise you that we get more sodium in our body than we need. Here are some of the products to watch out for, when it comes to sodium:

  1. The vast majority of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from food that we buy processed and pre-prepared. These foods will typically contain a high level of salt, and many of them also make use of sodium containing additives. Examples are bread, pizza, cold cuts and bacon, cheese, soups, olives, pickles,chips, pretzels and (of course) fast foods.
  2. There are also natural foods that contain sodium. Vegetables and dairy products, such as milk and meat, and shellfish all contain sodium, albeit not in large quantities. A cup of low-fat milk, for example, contains about 105mg of sodium.
  3. Condiments may contain salt. An obvious example is soy sauce. One table spoon of this sauce has about 1000mg of sodium. A less obvious example would be a tablespoon of barbecue sauce, with about 400mg of sodium.

Besides the sodium that we consume through the products we eat, many of us also have a tendency to add more salt to our food, either in the kitchen or at the table. I hope that you realize from the above that reducing the sodium levels in your body is not just a matter of putting the salt shaker out of reach. It also means being more mindful of the products that you eat and in what quantity.

Your salt taste is an acquired taste, which means that your salt cravings increase with consumption. The more salt you eat, the more salt you want going forward. The good news is that you can also un-acquire your taste for salt, which takes a few weeks. If you find it hard to make the change, here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Use other herbs and spices to flavor your foods. Saltless seasonings and Mrs. Dash products are good options.
  • Your taste buds cannot easily distinguish between salt and sour. If you are struggling to reduce your salt intake, you may want to consider adding lemon, citrus fruits and/or (flavored) vinegars to the foods where you miss the salt the most.


Healthy Habits for salt intake:

  1. Consume largely fresh foods
  2. Use natural flavorings like herbs and saltless spices
  3. Avoid pre-prepared and fast foods
  4. Keep lemon and/or (flavored) vinegar handy


karinSalt – How much do we need?

Comments 6

  1. Gareth Sitz

    Totally in agreement! Now, if I could just get my husband to take his salt consumption seriously; he has high blood pressure, but because it is controlled by medication, he feels free to have as much salt as he wishes, adding tons of soy sauce and salt to his food and indulging in salty snacks like chips and pretzels on a regular basis. I intend to show him this article. 🙂

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      Gareth, unfortunately there are so many like your husband, who take a pill and think that that is enough to stay healthy. I hope that my article will make him realize that there are better ways to control blood pressure.

  2. Sherry Wynn

    I have high blood pressure controlled by medicine. I had been reducing my salt intake by not using salt on any foods and buying no salt or reduced salt products. At my last blood workup, my sodium level was very low and I had to start adding salt to my diet. Guess one can go to extremes! I now try to use salt in moderation. Good informative article. Thanks!

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