Sodium in Our Food – How Much Should You Consume?

cheeses-calcium

Cheese is the food that contains the highest amount of sodium.

Sodium is one of the 7 macro minerals that our body needs. But the question is: how much sodium do we really need, and how much is too much? Here is what research says about sodium consumption, and how you can consume less sodium.

All body fluids contain sodium, and that’s why it is essential to life. Sodium is involved in many biochemical processes including water balance regulation, fluid distribution in cell walls, muscle activity, nerve stimulation and acid-alkaline balance. Sodium is important to the function of the adrenal glands. And while sodium is needed in so many processes of our body, research has shown (and this topic is NOT controversial) that excessive sodium intake may result in high blood pressure, potassium deficiency, and organ disease.

According to research, Americans now consume 4,000 mg of sodium daily, vs only about 800 mg in prehistorical times. That’s 5 times more!

Chris Kresser wrote an interesting series of articles in 2012 in which he examines the history and the health implications of consuming salt in our diet. In particular, he writes, based on this research, that “Preagricultural humans are estimated to have consumed only 768 mg of sodium each day (about 1950 mg of salt), which is much lower than our current intake.”

Victoria J. Drake, Ph.D., explains here that “On average, Americans consume 4,000 mg of sodium (10 grams of salt) daily. Of this amount, about 75% is derived from processed food; only about 5% is discretionary salt use—salt added at the table.”

Official sodium intake recommendations vary according to the country, but they are more or less within the same range: 1500 mg in the US, similar in the UK, and a little more in France.

Based on these recommendations (which by the way are associated with a recommendation of consuming 4700 mg potassium at the same time, but I’ll save this for another discussion), how can we make sure we get the sodium that our body needs, without consuming too much of it?

1/ The first answer to that question is to avoid or highly limit processed foods. As shown above, 75% of the sodium intake of Americans (and other people) comes from processed foods. That’s 3000 mg a day. So, by no longer consuming processed foods, you’ll most probably reduce your intake to the recommended daily amount.

2/ The second answer is to look at the sodium content of our foods. Here are 4 tables that show how much sodium there is in more than 100 common foods.

sodium1

As you can see, the foods with the highest sodium content are mainly cheeses and processed meats like sausages and chorizo.

sodium2

Next are more cheeses, eggs, some seafood items, and beet greens or Swiss chard. But the content of the latter is much lower than that of cheeses and processed meats like sausages.

Now let’s take an example: if your breakfast is 2 scrambled eggs plus 2 pork sausages (30g), your sodium intake is 480 mg. That’s 1/3 of your daily ration, which is fine. But if your breakfast is 50g of American Cheese on bread plus 2 poached eggs, you’re at about 800 mg of sodium, more than half your daily ration.

Other foods contain a lot less sodium, and don’t really are an issue. And that’s also why eating vegetables for breakfast and at other meals is a good idea!

sodium3

sodium4

What should be consumed in moderation are really cheeses, processed meats, eggs (1 or 2 per day are ok depending on your requirements, but more would not be recommended sodium-wise).

Remember that added salt in our kitchen only represents a minor amount (unless you really add a LOT, of course) of our daily sodium intake. Processed foods are the big culprits, and should be highly reduced or avoided.

Sources:
USDA Database – http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/
 
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