Sodium: How much is enough?

Estimated Reading Time 3 Minutes

Sodium is hiding in most of the processed food we eat, making it hard to shake the salt habit.

Sodium is an essential element of our diet. Our bodies cannot produce sodium so it must be consumed and it is essential for the many functions within our body. Sodium plays a role in muscle movements, cell structure, neural transmission – things our body is doing almost constantly. So having salt in our diet is important; the challenge lies in knowing how much is enough, and how much is too much.

The majority of Canadian adults and children exceed recommended sodium intake every day! The concern with this is that high sodium intake is directly linked to childhood hypertension and obesity which can in turn lead to adult health concerns such as heart disease and stroke.

Concern over the health impact of high sodium levels led to Health Canada forming the Sodium Working Group which issued a Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada. Adequate Intake (AI) levels of sodium were established. This is the intake level that adequately meets all the body’s sodium needs, including exercise. Then Tolerable Upper Intake Levels, (UI) were determined. This is the absolute upper limit of sodium your body tolerates before making compensations that affect health.

The hidden culprit

There are 2,300 mg of sodium in a teaspoon of salt, but adding salt to food at the table only accounts for six percent of our daily intake. Salt added during cooking accounts for only six percent. Another 12 percent is naturally occurring in foods. That leaves a whopping 77 percent that is estimated to be hidden in commercially processed foods.

So, the best way to reduce sodium levels in your family’s diet is to reduce the amount of processed foods you eat.

Part of the challenge for parents is that most “child friendly” foods in supermarkets and restaurants are the highest in sodium. Breakfast cereals, chicken fingers or nuggets, mini pizzas, french fries, pasta, cheeseburgers or hot dogs are among the worst sodium offenders.

A single meal of a cheeseburger and fries, even in child serving size, will exceed the daily UI of sodium for a child. So you turn to something that seems healthier, such as a ham and cheese sandwich – but even those have surprisingly high sodium levels. Add it up:

  • two slices whole wheat bread – 350 mg
  • slice of packaged sandwich ham – 750 mg
  • slice of processed cheese – 260 mg
  • teaspoon of mayonnaise – 90 mg

That’s a total of 1,450 mg … a side of potato chips adds another 300 mg!

Children require far less sodium than adults. Sodium levels for children from the Sodium Working Group:

Age        Adequate intake    Upper intake
1-3 1,000 mg 1,500 mg
4-8 1,200 mg 1,900 mg
9-13 1,500 mg 2,200 mg
14-18 1,500 mg 2,300 mg

Shifting your family’s diet away from processed foods and towards whole fresh foods takes time, so don’t beat yourself up if you rely on processed foods now and again. Here are some ideas:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Substitute sliced cucumbers, carrot sticks and rolled lettuce leaves for french fries or make your own fries by cutting up fresh potatoes into “fries,” toss in olive oil, bake.
  • Choose sodium-reduced or sodium-free products.
  • Ensure children drink plenty of water.
  • Exercise daily to help the body to excrete sodium.

Yvonne Camus is a registered holistic nutritionist in Mississauga, Ont., and the mother of three children.

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