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Sodium Intake and The Effects On Blood Pressure

March 10, 2020
Sodium Intake and The Effects On Blood Pressure - Lark Health

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Salt's Effect on Your Body

Sodium often comes up in conversations about high blood pressure. The traditional belief is that dietary sodium - mostly coming from salt - raises blood pressure, and that restricting sodium intake can lower it. This view is a bit simplistic, but it does have some value. 

Overall, limiting sodium intake may help lower blood pressure both directly and by making antihypertensive medications more effective. In addition, increasing certain other nutrients can help counter the effects of sodium to lower blood pressure. Lark can guide you in choosing lower-sodium foods and making other healthy changes to manage blood pressure.

How Does Sodium Affect Blood Pressure?

In general, sodium in the diet leads to higher blood pressure. Limiting sodium consumption to 1,500 mg per day or reducing intake by 1,000 mg per day can lower systolic blood pressure by 5 to 6 mm Hg systolic blood pressure.

Some people are salt-sensitive, which means consuming sodium directly raises blood pressure. It is more common among older adults, those with diabetes, and African Americans. Notably, fewer than half of American adults fall outside of these high-risk groups; that is, most Americans are likely to be salt-sensitive.

What if you are not salt-sensitive? Chances are, limiting sodium consumption can still help. Excess sodium consumption appears to have effects related to blood pressure, such as the following. 

  • Changing the regulation of fluids and action of related hormones
  • Impairing cardiac function
  • Increasing risk for kidney disease
  • Reducing blood vessel elasticity (stiffer arteries)

Sodium and Blood Pressure Medications

There are many different classes of blood pressure medications, or antihypertensives. The amount of sodium you consume can affect the action of some types of blood pressure medications. For other antihypertensives, sodium consumption can indirectly affect your need for them by affecting your blood pressure levels.

These are some of the most common medications prescribed to lower blood pressure.

Taking medications as prescribed is one of the most important steps you can take to lower blood pressure. Lark can help remind you to take medications and track adherence so you know how well you are following doctor's orders.

Goals for Sodium Consumption

The recommendation for sodium consumption is to stay under 2,300 mg per day for healthy adults. For individuals with hypertension or with risk factors, the recommendation is 1,500 mg per day.

If you have never counted your sodium intake before, chances are that you are getting far more than that. The average American consumes over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, according to the Dietary Guidelines. In fact, every age and gender group in the U.S. is above recommendations.

It is easy to over-consume sodium. A single cup of soup, salad with chicken, or turkey sandwich can each have 1,000 mg, for example.

Dietary Sources of Sodium

It may seem like there is sodium everywhere you turn, but there is a positive way to see it. If a lot of foods have a lot of sodium, there must be plenty of targets for limiting sodium. Just being aware of some of the biggest sodium culprits can give you ideas for limiting sodium.

Finding Sodium Culprits

Packaged foods are often salty, high in sodium.

  • Canned goods such as soup, beans, vegetables, and chili
  • Frozen goods such as pizza and entrees
  • Snack foods such as chips and pretzels

Deli or processed meats are notoriously salty, as are pickles. Many dressings, sauces, and condiments are high-sodium, too.

Fast foods, and other prepared foods, can be salt mines.

  • A single slice of pizza has 700 mg of sodium, and who stops at a slice?
  • A piece of fried chicken has nearly 1,000 mg
  • A meal with cheeseburger and fries can have over 1,500 mg

Surprising Sources of Sodium

Sodium can also be in unexpected sources. For example, did you know?

  • Bread is the top source of sodium in the typical American diet, with about 150 mg in a single slice
  • A cup of raisin bran has 350 mg
  • An 8-oz. cup of almond milk has nearly 200 mg

How to Limit Sodium

Swapping lower-sodium foods for higher-sodium ones and cutting back on some of the saltiest products can help you lower sodium consumption. Also, checking nutrition facts panels on food labels can tell you the food's sodium content. They are a good resource as long as you are sure to check the serving size. 

1. Cutting Portions of High-Sodium Condiments

Asking for sauces and dressings on the side and using only half can greatly reduce the sodium content of foods. For example:

  • Using half the package of dressing from a fast food restaurant can save 300 mg of sodium
  • Skipping the soy sauce packet from a Chinese joint can save 400 mg
  • Other targets may be pickles and special sauces on burgers and sandwiches

2. Lower-Sodium Swaps

For almost every high-sodium food, there is a lower-sodium swap that can serve a similar purposes. Many processed foods also come in low-sodium or unsalted versions.

  • A half-cup of canned beans has 500 mg sodium, while low-sodium beans have only 10 mg
  • Low-sodium soy sauce and canned vegetables
  • Low-salt broth and soup
  • Unsalted peanut butter
  • Unsalted pretzels

Here are a few other ideas for swapping lower for higher-sodium foods.

  • Fresh cucumbers or other vegetables instead of pickles.
  • Fresh chicken or low-sodium canned tuna instead of deli meat on sandwiches.
  • Mustard instead of relish or ketchup on burgers and sandwiches.
  • Air-popped popcorn or brown rice cakes instead of buttered popcorn or chips.
  • Corn tortilla instead of flour tortilla.

When possible, making your own can give you control over the sodium content.

  • Low-sodium broth lets you make lower-sodium soups
  • Cooking beans and grains from dried versions lets them stay low-sodium
  • Guacamole and hummus are examples of dips you can make yourself so you can keep sodium low

3. Think Twice About Table Salt

Table salt is quite high in sodium, with about 2,400 mg in a single quarter of a teaspoon. While it is not the major source of sodium in the diet, adding table salt to foods before even tasting them can bump up sodium consumption by quite a bit.

Instead, using herbs and spices to flavor foods, tasting foods before adding table salt, and considering pepper instead of "salt and pepper" can lower sodium content of the diet.

What about Nutritious But High-Sodium Foods?

Some foods are high in sodium, but offer other important nutrients.

  • Cottage cheese and cheese, for example, have protein and calcium
  • Olives have heart-healthy monounsaturated fats
  • A veggie burger patty can be nutritious as an alternative to red meat and, often, as a way to increase consumption of healthy foods such as beans, lentils, oats, mushrooms, and more, but the patty can have over 300 mg of sodium.

These foods can still be part of a regular, healthy diet to lower blood pressure. When eating them, you can limit their impact by drinking plenty of water and by choosing lower-sodium foods for the rest of that meal or the rest of the day.

I Can't Eliminate Salt!

Good. You should not try to eliminate sodium entirely because it is an essential mineral in the diet.

Plenty of nutritious foods have sodium and together, they can meet your sodium needs. Chicken, beets, and celery have 60 or more mg of sodium per serving, while a cup of cooked chard has about 300 mg. Sticking to mainly unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods can keep sodium at healthy levels.

If you find that you cannot keep sodium to under 2,300 mg per day, or under 1,500 mg if your doctor recommends it, there are still benefits to be had just from trying. Guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology (ACC) say that reducing sodium by 1,000 mg per day can lower SBP by 1,000 mg. Any of the following swaps decrease sodium by over 500 mg, so choosing any two per day would lead to a 1,000-mg decrease in sodium.

  • Oil and vinegar instead of 1/4 cup of dressing
  • 1 cucumber instead of 1 dill pickle
  • 1 cup low-sodium soup instead of regular
  • 2 slices thin-crust cheese pizza instead of 2 slices regular crust pepperoni pizza
  • Crunchy chicken taco instead of chicken burrito
  • Breakfast sandwich with eggs and cheese on an English muffin instead of with eggs, cheese, and sausage on a bagel
  • Roasted chicken sandwich with avocado and tomato instead of cold cut sandwich with mayo and pickles
  • Baked potato with yogurt and broccoli instead of boxed mashed potatoes with cheese

Chances are, lowering intake at all can help. As you keep logging food with Lark, you can see about how much sodium you are having and possibly identify a few of the foods that may be adding significant amounts to your totals.

Since sodium and blood pressure are closely related, it helps to get a handle on sodium so you can control how much you have. Knowing how much you are eating and where the top sources are, as well as swaps to lower intake, can lead to better blood pressure control without much effort or stress. Logging with Lark lets you find out about your habits and get personalized feedback and guidance as you go.

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