Is Salt Good for You or Not?

Everyone loves sprinkling some salt over their fries. And salt seems to be a requirement in nearly every recipe, from baked goods to seasoned steaks to homemade sauces. Salt is about 40% sodium, which is an electrolyte the body needs to function properly, yet we always hear that sodium causes serious health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease. So, what’s the deal with salt — is it good or bad? The answer lies in the amount.

Salt shaker

Is salt good for you or not? | Sebalos/iStock/Getty Images

Your body needs sodium to function

The primary source for sodium is salt, and your body needs sodium to function. Sodium is an electrolyte. It controls the flow of water in and out of our cells and sparks nerve impulses, both of which are necessary for us to live. Without sodium, the cells would either shrivel up and die or burst from being too full, since they wouldn’t have anything to control their water intake.

You might notice electrolytes when you sweat — they’re the reason your body feels like it has a salty coating on it when the sweat dries. When you sweat, electrolytes get deposited into your sweat glands, which has to do with your hydration levels. Once you’re done with a sweaty workout, you need to replenish your body with water and electrolytes.

Too much salt turns a good thing into a bad thing

It’s no secret that some added salt can make anything taste better. But Americans tend to add way too much to their food, and too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing. Although salt is necessary, too much of it can have adverse effects on your body. Since sodium is responsible for regulating water in and out of your cells, too much of it can mean that it pulls too much moisture out of your cells and holds excess fluid in your body. This makes the heart work harder, which can lead to problems like high blood pressure and eventually a heart attack.

The United States has a serious sodium problem

The reason you often hear salt is bad is because the U.S. eats far, far too much of it. According to the American Heart Association, your body only needs 500 milligrams of salt each day to sustain normal bodily functions. However, the average American eats 3,400 milligrams per day — that’s nearly seven times what your body needs. The AHA recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams per day, but it’s extremely hard to limit your salt intake with the American diet.

To put into perspective how much sodium you eat, here are a few ingredients and foods that might contain more sodium than you realized:

White bread: 150 milligrams per slice
Buffalo wing sauce: 460 milligrams per tablespoon
American cheese: 470 milligrams per slice
Soy sauce: 875 milligrams per tablespoon

If you pull out two slices of white bread from your pantry, you’ve already met 60% of the day’s sodium intake before any sandwich toppings. Indulge in one or two buffalo wings, and that’s more than 90%. And add one tablespoon of soy sauce to a recipe, and you’re at 175%. It’s incredibly easy to fill your diet with sodium, but it’s so important that you start keeping track of how much sodium your foods contain.

Indulging can happen once in a while, but try to keep your diet at no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fresh meats (not cold cuts) are great low-sodium foods. And be careful with certain fish — lox, for example, often has around 700 milligrams of sodium per serving. And imitation crab meat, often used in sushi, can have more than 1,000 milligrams per serving. Sodium in moderation is good for you, but in excess, it can cause serious health problems.

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