Limiting salt balancing potassium

Sodium is a mineral that helps regulate your body's fluid balance, the flow of water into and out of every cell described in Chapter 13. This balance keeps just enough water inside the cell so that it can perform its daily jobs but not so much that the cell — packed to bursting — explodes.

Most people have no problems with sodium. They eat a lot one day, a little less the next, and their bodies adjust. Others, however, don't react so evenly. For them, a high-sodium diet appears to increase the risk of high blood pressure. When you already have high blood pressure, you can tell fairly quickly whether lowering the amount of salt in your diet lowers your blood pressure. But no test is available at this point for telling whether someone who doesn't have high blood pressure will develop it by consuming a diet that's high in sodium.

Because limiting sodium intake to a moderate level won't harm anyone, the guidelines advocate avoiding excessive amounts of salt. Doing so helps reduce blood pressure levels for people who are salt-sensitive.

What's moderate use? According to the Guidelines, you should consume less than 2,300 milligrams (approximately 1 teaspoon of salt) of sodium per day. The easiest way to reach that goal is to choose and prepare foods with very little added salt. At the same time, it pays to consume potassium-rich foods, such as (what else?) fruits and vegetables, because an adequate supply of potassium helps control blood pressure.

By the way, moderating your salt intake has another, unadvertised benefit. It may lower your weight a bit. Why? Because sodium is hydrophilic (hydro -water; philic - loving). Sodium attracts and holds water. When you eat less salt, you retain less water, you're less bloated, and you feel thinner.

Don't reduce salt intake drastically without first checking with your doctor. Remember, sodium is an essential nutrient, and the Guidelines advocate moderate use, and not no use at all.

Where's the sodium?

The foods with the highest amounts of naturally occurring sodium are natural cheeses, sea fish, and shellfish. Some foods are low in sodium but pick up plenty of salt when they're processed. For example, one cup of cooked fresh green peas has about 2 milligrams (mg) sodium, but one cup of canned peas may have 493 mg sodium. To be fair, most canned and processed vegetables are now available in low-sodium versions, too. The difference is notable: One cup of low-sodium canned peas has 8 mg of sodium, 485 mg less than regular canned peas.

You also get added sodium in the salt on snack foods, such as potato chips and peanuts, not to mention the salt you add yourself from the shaker that's on virtually every American table. Not all the sodium you swallow is sodium chloride. Sodium compounds also are used as preservatives, thickeners, and buffers (chemicals that smooth down acidity).

Table 16-1 lists several different kinds of sodium compounds in food. Table 16-2 lists sodium compounds in over-the-counter (OTC) drug products.

Table 16-1 Sodium Compounds in Food

Sodium Compound


Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Flavor enhancer

Sodium benzoate

Keeps food from spoiling

Sodium caseinate

Thickens foods and provides protein

Sodium chloride (table salt)

Flavoring agent

Sodium citrate

Holds carbonation in soft drinks

Sodium hydroxide

Makes peeling the skin off tomatoes and fruits

before canning easier

Sodium nitrate/nitrite

Keeps food (cured meats) from spoiling — and

gives these foods their distinctive red color

Sodium phosphates

Mineral supplement

Sodium saccharin

No-calorie sweetener

"The Sodium Content of Your Food," Home and Garden Bulletin, No. 233 (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Agriculture, August 1980); Ruth Winter, A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives (New York: Crown, 1978)

Table 16-2

Sodium Compounds in OTC Drug Products

Sodium Compound


Sodium ascorbate

A form of vitamin C used in nutritional supplements

Sodium bicarbonate


Sodium biphosphate


Sodium citrate


Sodium fluoride

Mineral used in nutritional supplements and as a

decay preventative in tooth powders

Sodium phosphates


Sodium saccharin


Sodium salicylate

Analgesic (similar to aspirin)

Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs, 9th ed. (Washington, D. C.: American Pharmaceutical Association, 1990); Physicians' Desk Reference, 48th ed. (Montvale, N.J.: Medical Economics Data Production, 1994)

Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs, 9th ed. (Washington, D. C.: American Pharmaceutical Association, 1990); Physicians' Desk Reference, 48th ed. (Montvale, N.J.: Medical Economics Data Production, 1994)

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