"Sodium creates weight gain, but not fat gain: It's water retention," says Rosie Schwartz, Toronto-based registered dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). "You need a certain concentration of sodium in your blood and if you take in too much salt, you can see a real fluctuation in your weight," as your body holds on to more water to compensate, says Schwartz.
This water retention can be significant enough to make clothes feel too tight – thereby causing one of those awful "fat days."
Dangers of sodium
Beyond cosmetic concerns, excess sodium has other, more serious dangers, says Schwartz, including an increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, kidney disease and even bone thinning.
"If you consume a lot of salt, it can cause calcium loss in your bones. Many women take calcium supplements [to help prevent future osteoporosis], but if your sodium levels are off the wall, you're not doing yourself any favours," says Schwartz.
For both health and vanity's sake, cutting back is a smart idea.
How much sodium is too much?
The 2004 Canada Community Health survey (CCHS) found Canadians consume way too much sodium.
According to the US Institute of Medicine, as cited by the CCHS, here is how much sodium we should be consuming:
• 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day for babies and little ones aged 1 through 3
• 1,300 mg/day for kids aged 4 to 8
• 1,500 mg/day for people aged 9 to 50
• 1,300 mg/day for adults aged 51 to 70
• 1,200 mg/day for seniors over 70
Meanwhile, another amount, known as the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), represents the maximum daily amount we can consume without proven adverse health effects. The further your sodium consumption overshoots the UL, the more likely your chances of developing conditions like hypertension.
ULs for sodium range from 1,500 mg to 2,300 mgs, depending on age. The CCHS report is blunt: "In 2004, regardless of age, Canadians' average daily intake of sodium was far beyond the recommended UL."
Men aged 31 to 50 averaged sodium intakes of 3,600 mg per day. Women in the same age group, 2,800 mg. Teenage boys consumed a whopping 4,200 mg per day! (The UL for all these groups is 2,300 mg.)
Page 1 of 2 – On page 2, learn simple ways to reduce your sodium intake and make healthier food choices.
Sodium in convenience foods
"The majority of sodium in our diets comes from prepared foods," not the saltshaker, says Schwartz.
Prepared foods ranging from restaurant takeout to supermarket entrees and readymade sauces, to convenience store snacks, all carry a huge salt footprint. Sometimes it can come in surprising places, including menu choices that seem healthy at first glance.
If you aren't sure how much sodium your favourite coffee shop's chicken sandwich contains, visit their website to find out.
A better idea? Cook from scratch.
Real food = less salt
"Sodium occurs naturally, but fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meat and fish all have less than 100 mg of sodium per serving," says Schwartz.
Even if you add a dash of salt during cooking and at the table, chances are, your home cooked meal will still have less sodium than a convenience-food version.
Further, says Schwartz: "Salt really is an acquired taste, so over time, you can just decrease the amount you use for cooking."
When using packaged ingredients, look for reduced-sodium versions, but keep in mind that if the original's sodium level was sky-high, "lower sodium" doesn't necessarily mean "low sodium."
"Regular soy sauce has about 1,000 mg of sodium per serving, and lower-sodium versions have about 600 mg. Whenever you look at the Nutrition Facts box and see over 400 mg of sodium per serving, that's getting high," says Schwartz. So use it with a light touch, if at all.
For canned tomatoes and other veggies, look for salt-free versions. You can also lower the sodium content of canned tuna or salmon by pouring out can juices and giving the fish a quick rinse under running water, says Schwartz.
Speak out about salt
Serious about cutting back on salt, for the good of your family's health – as well as the fit of your clothes? E-mail or call the 1-800 numbers on your favourite grocery products and share your thoughts about sodium.
Tell manufacturers you read nutrition labels and love the fact their new sauce has only 250 mg sodium per serving. Or ask them why they don't have a low-sodium version of their très-yum chicken noodle soup.
"Consumers are the ones who determine how much sodium is in our foods because we vote with our purchases," says Schwartz. "We can see positive changes in our food supply – consumers can make that happen!"
Better health and better fitting jeans – if that's not win-win, we don't know what is!
Page 2 of 2 – What diseases are you putting yourself at risk for by consuming to much sodium? Find the answers on page 1.