Salt in unhealthy quantities is not good for anyone. Here’s how much salt is too much, and why monitoring salt intake is important for people living with diabetes.
Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and is often referred to simply as “sodium.” Even though the words are used interchangeably, salt and sodium are not the same. Sodium is a necessary mineral, known as an electrolyte, that helps regulate the balance of fluid in your body. Sodium helps your body maintain normal muscle and nerve function.
Salt is a mixture of sodium and chloride — salt is composed of about 40 percent sodium and about 60 percent chloride, with a chemical composition known as NaCl. You can’t separate the sodium (Na) from chloride (Cl), which is why sodium and salt are often used as interchangeable terms.
Since sodium is a necessary mineral that helps regulate and balance fluid in your body, does that mean salt is good for you? Well, yes and no. In moderation, salt (sodium) is essential to your bodily functions, but the problem is that most people consume more salt than they need.
The Problem With Salt
Most people eat between one and three tablespoons of salt a day. That equals 6 to 18 grams of salt per day. When you compare that to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended daily intake of 3,400 mg per day (3.4 grams), it’s clear that many of us are eating way too much salt.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet with no more than 1,500 mg (1.5 grams) of sodium per day. If you eat 18 grams of sodium a day, that is more than five times the CDC recommended amount, and more than 12 times the AHA recommended amount!
When your body has too much salt (sodium), it can cause high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. This can happen whether or not you have diabetes.
Salt and Diabetes: What’s the Connection?
When you were first diagnosed with diabetes, you learned about the dangers of high blood glucose levels, and how to reduce your glucose levels through medication, eating healthy foods and diabetes-friendly snacks, and other practical ways to reduce your blood sugar.
Now you have to manage salt, too? Don’t worry, it’s not a huge task, and lowering salt intake is healthy for everyone. Sharing your new knowledge about salt intake can help all of your family members, even if they don’t have diabetes!
Although salt doesn’t affect blood glucose levels, too much salt can increase blood pressure. People living with diabetes are twice as likely to have high blood pressure compared to people who do not have diabetes, and high blood pressure can lead to heart disease.
Because the risk for high blood pressure is higher, people living with diabetes are more likely to die from heart disease compared to people who don’t have diabetes. Knowing this, you want to make sure that managing salt intake is part of your diabetes care plan. This is particularly true for people living with type 2 diabetes.
People living with, or at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, often have risk factors that make them more prone to heart disease. This is one of the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
The risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excessive weight gain or obesity, and living a more sedentary life. Adults living with type 2 diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, with research showing an up to 200 percent increased risk for people with the highest intake of salt compared to those who consume low amounts of salt.
The good news is you can reduce your risk by reducing the amount of salt in your diet.
Where Does All This Salt Come From?
There are obvious ways salt is added to your food, like when you reach for the salt shaker, but your salt shaker isn’t the number one source of salt in your diet. Many foods have added salt that you might not be aware of, especially foods served at restaurants. Salt is often used in restaurants to add flavor to meals. The good thing is you can ask for a low salt dish, or ask that your food be prepared without salt.
For foods purchased at the grocery store, some common sources of salt include salty meats like ham, bacon and sausage. Salty snacks like popcorn, nuts, and crackers also are a more obvious source of added salt. But did you know that foods like cheese, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and pickles also contain added salt?
Some other less obvious sources include bread, breakfast cereal and many canned foods. Foods like donuts and cookies also can contain salt, so it’s best to read all labels to know whether and how much salt is in the food you buy. Look for "Sodium" on the nutrition label.
Here are some places to look for added salt:
It may be surprising, but bread is the number one source of salt in your diet (if you eat bread). The good news is there are low salt options so check the labels.
Chicken may be enhanced with a mixture of salt and water to plump up the meat. Check for the word “enhanced” which can mean salt has been added. If the ingredients in chicken include chicken broth or sea salt, look for options without anything added.
Condiments can have lots and lots of salt, so be careful to choose low salt options. You can still have the added flavor of condiments like ketchup without all the added salt. Did you know that many condiments also contain hidden sugar?
It’s shocking, but packaged oatmeal can contain a lot of salt, some with over 250 mg per serving. It is best to make your own oatmeal at home and add the flavors you like, such as raisins or apples.
Some cheeses, like American or string cheese, are higher in salt than others, like swiss and mozzarella.
The best way to avoid added salt in the foods you buy at the grocery store is to read the labels. When reading labels, look for words like sodium, Na, NaCl, or sodium chloride. All of these words mean there is salt in the food.
When you get used to looking for added salt in the foods you buy, you will be able to recognize the foods that are low- or no-salt options. Over time, it will become second nature to avoid foods high in salt.
What About Sea Salt or Reduced-Sodium Salt?
Unfortunately, salt is salt. Sea salt and other types of gourmet salt may provide a slightly different taste, but they still add salt to your diet. Reduced-sodium salt replaces sodium with potassium.
This might be ok, but increased potassium can have harmful effects if you have kidney disease. It’s best to talk to your health care provider before using a salt substitute.
Tips To Reduce Your Salt Intake
If you have become accustomed to eating salty foods, gradually reduce the amount of salt you use when cooking. Your taste buds will adjust to the reduced salt levels over time, and you can eventually cut added salt out entirely.
Avoid adding salt to food that has already been cooked, either at your dinner table or at a restaurant. As mentioned above, when eating at a restaurant, ask that your food be prepared without salt or high salt ingredients. It’s also a good idea to taste your food first before adding salt.
There are lots of spices that provide great flavor without all the salt. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but you can start with some tried and true flavorings for your favorite dishes:
Season chicken and turkey with thyme and sage
Use lemon or mixed herbs, especially on fish
Garlic or basil give extra flavor to many dishes, especially pasta
Try paprika, pepper (white or black), chives or chili powder on potatoes
Onions and garlic add lots of flavor without added salt
Marinades with healthy oils, herbs, and spices are great for meat
Lemon or lime juice is a tasty addition to steamed vegetables, fish, salads, pasta or rice
Although sodium is a necessary mineral that helps regulate the balance of fluid in your body, too much can be harmful. Most people eat more than the recommended daily intake of salt, and some eat up to 12 times as much salt as recommended.
Excessive salt can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. People living with diabetes should be particularly careful with salt intake because they are twice as likely to have high blood pressure compared to people who don’t have diabetes.
The good news is that salt is an acquired taste that can easily be “unacquired.” Reducing salt intake takes a little effort at first by avoiding foods high in salt and reading labels, but over time, it will become second nature to avoid foods high in salt.