Why breaking up with sodium is good news for your heart
Although our bodies need some sodium, we don’t need the amount there is in processed foods, or salt added at the table.
Imagine the saltiest thing you think of… A delicious bowl of hot, crispy fries? Potato crisps maybe?
Turns out, it’s neither. The saltiest things most of us consume are canned soup, breakfast cereal and bread.
Yup, you heard right. A whopping 75% of the salt we consume comes from processed foods – many of them dietary staples. So even if you never pick up the salt shaker you’re probably consuming more salt than you need.
Salt vs Sodium
Salt is made up of sodium and chloride molecules. Sodium is a mineral that occurs naturally in foods or is added during manufacturing or both. By weight, salt is about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. Multiply sodium by 2.5 to convert it to the equivalent amount of salt.
So why does sodium matter?
Sodium is an essential mineral that helps to control fluid balance in the body and make muscles and nerves work properly. But too much sodium is bad news for our blood pressure.
When you consume too much salt, it pulls water into the blood vessels, increasing the total volume of blood inside your blood vessels. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose — the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it.
With more blood in your blood vessels, the heart has to work harder to pump it around the body. Over time high blood pressure can damage the arteries, increasing the risk of developing atherosclerosis or coronary heart disease. The body tries to ‘patch up’ the little tears in the artery walls with LDL (bad) cholesterol, signifying the start of atherosclerosis.
As the plaque and damage increases, the insides of the arteries become narrower — further raising blood pressure and damaging the arteries, heart and the rest of your body. This can lead to heart attack and stroke.
The World Health Organization estimates that high blood pressure is responsible for 17% of all deaths in high-income countries. And most people don’t even know they have it! High blood pressure is often referred to as the silent killer because it often doesn’t present with any symptoms.
Cutting down on salt is an important way to control your blood pressure.
Controlling your sodium intake
Although our bodies need some sodium, we don’t need the amount there is in processed foods, or salt added at the table. The salt naturally occurring in foods is sufficient to meet our needs.
Nine out of ten Americans eat too much sodium. The recommended daily intake of salt is 1,500mg, while most people consume more than double that at 3,400mg.
How to cut down on salt:
- Avoid adding salt during cooking or at the table. Season food with pepper only.
- Use garlic, onions, lemon, herbs and spices to flavour foods rather than adding salt.
- Read labels carefully and look for foods without salt in the ingredients, or “No added salt” on the packaging.
- Condiments can be packed with sodium so limit packaged sauces, salad dressings, soy sauce, capers, dips and ketchup/tomato sauce or look for low sodium alternatives.
- Salt is often added to foods to enhance sweetness so many packaged cookies, cakes and desserts are packed with sodium. If you feel like a treat, bake your own.
- Swap high-sodium packaged breakfast cereals for oatmeal, omelettes or avocado and tomato on toast.
- Consider baking your own bread.
- Choose canned vegetables and fish without added salt. Drain and rinse canned vegetables and legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils) before use – this can reduce sodium content by up to 40%!
- When eating out, taste your food before seasoning it with salt. Often pepper alone is enough!
The ones to watch
Certain foods tend to be packed with sodium. The top sources of sodium in most people’s diets are the following:
- Cold cuts and cured meats (salami, sausages, bacon, ham)
- Breakfast cereals
But if I cut down on salt, won’t my food be flavourless?
It might take a couple of weeks to get used to eating less sodium, but your taste buds will quickly adjust. Cutting down on processed foods is good news for the health of your entire body.
Don’t forget about potassium!
Reducing your sodium intake is important, but it’s equally important to consume more potassium. Potassium works in tandem with sodium to control fluid balance in the body, and thus blood pressure.
Potassium blunts the effects of sodium. The more potassium we eat, the more sodium we pass out of the body through urine. Potassium also helps relax blood vessel walls, which helps lower blood pressure.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are the best source of potassium, so load up on lots of lovely salads, add fruit and vegetables to your breakfast, snack on fruit and add extra vegetables to your lunchtime wrap or sandwich. Aim for 7+ serves of fruit and vegetables per day.
How Omega 3 can support Heart Health
Controlling your blood pressure is just one aspect of promoting good cardiovascular health. Exercise, managing stress and providing your body with optimum nutrition are equally important.
One nutrient that plays a particularly critical role in protecting the health of our hearts is Omega 3. This super-nutrient is needed for the optimal function of almost every body system, from cognition to eye health. Omega 3 cannot be made by the body, so we must consume it through food or supplementation.
Omega 3 supports heart health via a number of mechanisms including:
- Controls Blood Pressure – In a number of studies, supplementation with Omega 3 fatty acids has been shown to help reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension.
- Supports healthy circulation - Omega 3 fatty acids help to thin the blood, reducing the likelihood of clots, heart attack and stroke.
- Supports healthy cholesterol levels. High triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels are a key risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association found that fish oil supplementation can help lower harmful triglyceride levels.
- Inflammation management – Inflammation is increasingly recognised as a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Omega 3 fatty acids help regulate inflammation, and may therefore have potential to reduce risk of developing the disease.
Although fish is an important part of a healthy diet, it’s very difficult to gain all the benefits of Omega 3 from eating fish alone. For therapeutic benefit, it’s wise to take a high-quality fish oil supplement.
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When buying a fish oil supplement, it’s worthwhile doing a little research. Many fish oil suppliers use the cheapest fish available (often fish derived from industrial waste) which may be harvested from polluted waters! Delicate Omega 3 oils are also easily damaged by heat and light – meaning many Omega 3 supplements may be oxidised.
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 American Heart Association. Common High Blood Pressure Myths. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/GettheFactsAboutHighBloodPressure/Common-High-Blood-Pressure-Myths_UCM_430836_Article.jsp#.WlQNNVWWbIU
 American Heart Association. Sodium and your health. https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/sodium_and_your_health?utm_source=SRI&utm_medium=HeartOrg&utm_term=Website&utm_content=SodiumAndSalt&utm_campaign=SodiumBreakup
 New Zealand Heart Foundation. Salt and blood pressure.
 American Heart Association. 9 out of 10 Americans eat too much salt infographic. https://healthyforgood.heart.org/eat-smart/infographics/9-out-of-10-americans-eat-too-much-sodium-infographic
 American Heart Association. How to reduce sodium. https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/how_to_reduce_sodium
 American Heart Association
 American Heart Association. A primer on potassium. https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/a_primer_on_potassium
 Morris MC, Sacks F, Rosner B. Does fish oil lower blood pressure? A meta-analysis of controlled trials. Circulation. 1993 Aug;88(2):523-33.
 Stone, N J. Fish consumption, fish oil, lipids, and coronary heart disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1997, April 65 (4).