If you’re an American adult, you’ve probably heard that too much sodium can be bad for your heart. Perhaps your doctor has asked you to cut back on sodium-heavy foods to protect your heart health, or maybe you’ve made that decision for yourself. Leaving the saltshaker off the table, cutting back on processed foods, or choosing low-sodium canned goods are all great choices, but have you ever wondered WHY excess sodium spells bad news for your heart?
The process by which sodium affects heart health isn’t complicated. Salt attracts water. Picture your blood vessels as pipes–just like the pipes running through your home–with water (aka your blood) flowing through them. When too much salt is introduced into your “pipes,” fluid begins to build inside. If too much fluid accumulates, the pressure in the pipes will rise. In your home, you’ll eventually have a plumbing emergency. In your body, as the pressure pushes on the walls of your blood vessels, you’ll eventually develop high blood pressure.
The strain created by high blood pressure takes its toll on the cardiovascular system. The body responds to the stress of increased pressure in the arteries by causing them to weaken or harden. When arteries are weak or hard, the life-giving blood on its way to your heart will have a much harder time reaching its destination, potentially resulting in a blockage that leads to a heart attack.
Sodium recommendations are currently set at 2,400 mg/day, and will soon be changing to 2,300 mg/day, thanks in part to the American Heart Association’s lobbying efforts. But the average American takes in 3,400mg/day–40% more than recommended! It’s not hard to do. Americans get 75% of their daily sodium from processed foods, which we all know are pervasive in our society.
There are many ways to limit sodium in your diet (and they don’t all mean eating flavorless food)! Great flavors come in many forms. Try experimenting with other flavors like garlic, herbs and spices, or lemon juice when cooking at home. Choosing fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible, rinsing canned vegetables and beans, taking the saltshaker off the table, and simply reading food labels can all make a big difference in your salt consumption. The American Heart Association has also identified what are known as “the Salty Six”–foods that are a lot higher in sodium than most of us think.
Whatever path you take to reducing sodium in your diet, you can feel great knowing that you have done your heart a service! Healthy blood vessels mean healthy blood pressure, and healthy blood pressure is always a good thing for your heart.