Updated: July 25, 2013

Salt has become a major nutritional villain. In the United States, the maximum daily sodium recommendation is 1,500 - 2,300 mg (the lower limit if you have high blood pressure or heart disease risks, the higher limit if you're healthy), but according to a recent study, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg per day, and other estimates peg our daily intake at a much higher level - as much as 10,000 mg.

Earlier in my career, I worked in cardiac rehab, but today, most of my private practice clients are athletes, and relatively healthy adults who are trying to lose weight, so when it comes to sodium, I'm often asked, "Do I really need to pay attention to this?" The answer is definitely yes and there are two reasons why:

1) The sodium/weight connection. The tie between sodium and obesity is three fold. First, salty foods tend to increase thirst, and many people quench that thirst with beverages packed with calories. One study estimated that if the amount of sodium in an average child's diet was cut in half, their consumption of sugary drinks would decrease by about two per week. Second, salt enhances the taste of foods and therefore may encourage overeating, and finally, there is some animal research to show that a high sodium diet may affect the activity of fat cells, making them larger.

2) The short and long-term risks of excess. Fluid is attracted to sodium like a magnet, so when you take in too much, you retain more water. Short-term, this means bloating and puffiness and long-term, extra fluid creates stress on the heart, which has to work harder to pump the fluid through your body. The added work load on the heart and pressure on the artery walls can damage the cardiovascular system and raise blood pressure. Developing high blood pressure (which is often called the silent killer because it has no symptoms) puts you at greater risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and other series health problems. Experts estimate that reducing our sodium intakes in the US to the recommended levels could result in 11 million fewer cases of high blood pressure each year.

Bottom line: as a health professional, my focus is on helping people reach their goals in ways that will also keep them well and prevent the chronic diseases that plagued their parents or grandparents. Reducing sodium is an important piece of that puzzle and fortunately it's relatively easy. About 70 percent of the sodium in the American diet is from processed foods. By eating more fresh, whole foods, which I continuously promote in this blog, you'll automatically slash your sodium intake.

For example, last week I posted about what I eat for breakfast. The meal I ate that morning (whole oats with walnut butter and fresh strawberries, along with organic soy milk) contains a mere 132 mg of sodium, and the 5 step salad I blogged about recently packs less than 300 mg (by comparison, a low calorie frozen dinner contains about 700 mg and a 6" turkey sub on wheat from Subway packs over 900 mg).

Athletes who lose sodium in their sweat do need to replace it, but processed foods aren't the best way. Just one level teaspoon of sea salt packs 2,360 mg of sodium. So regardless of your goals (weight loss, better athletic performance, debloating your body, more energy...), ditching processed products and reaching for fresh food is the best foundation.

Do you have a serious salt tooth? Do you pay attention to how much sodium you take in? Please share your thoughts!

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