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Q&A: Why a low-sodium diet is better for your heart

Whether we know it or not, sodium is in nearly everything we eat. Cardiology Nurse Coordinator Jennifer Goldschmidt explains why high sodium diets are bad for your heart and shares advice for reducing sodium intake.
Sodium is in nearly everything—whether we know it or not. A University of Minnesota Health expert explains why low-sodium diets are better, and shares tips for reducing your salt intake.

Bread, cottage cheese, flavored instant oatmeal.

Whether we know it or not, sodium is in pretty much everything we eat—and some foods that do not taste salty can actually harbor a surprising amount of it.

This can make meal planning difficult for people monitoring their sodium intake to maintain heart health. We asked University of Minnesota Health Cardiology Nurse Coordinator Jennifer Goldschmidt several questions about heart health and sodium intake.

What’s the problem with high-sodium diets?

Eating food with a lot of sodium or salt makes your body hold onto more fluid, which in turn can increase your blood pressure and put you at a higher risk for chronic hypertension. Heart failure patients in particular are most sensitive to high salt content in their diet. As a result, they may experience excessive fluid retention, which accumulates in the lungs and body and can cause shortness of breath.

Even if I don’t have high-blood pressure, should I limit salt?

Yes! Studies have shown that people who live in the United States and other similar societies eat a lot of processed food. These foods can conceal high sodium amounts, and eating them can increase your risk of having high blood pressure.

Even if you don’t have it now, the risk for high blood pressure increases as you get older. So controlling your salt intake now—when you don’t have any problems—is a great way to build healthy habits for the future.

What’s considered a healthy amount of salt?

The guidelines vary. However, your daily intake should not exceed 2,000 milligrams of sodium per day. Occasionally, we will even recommend a lower limit for some heart failure or hypertension patients. Unfortunately, most Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health Heart Care.

If I don’t add table salt to my food, am I following a low-sodium diet?

No. Sodium hides in almost everything that we eat. Processed foods, anything that comes in a box and frozen packaged foods—all of these have very high amounts of sodium. Most restaurant meals have high levels of sodium, too. It is important to read food labels so that you know your actual sodium intake.

So, how do we avoid all this salt?

We recommend avoiding processed foods as much as possible. Try to prepare more fresh foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, and try to stay away from the middle aisles in the grocery store. When eating out, ask to have foods prepared without added salt, and have sauces and dressings (which often contain a lot of salt) served on the side.

What about that missing salty flavor?

We recommend incorporating fresh herbs, spice blends that don’t have salt, citrus or flavored vinegar into your meals. Many people have a hard time making these changes at first, but come to enjoy these flavors. Over time, patients find that their taste buds adjust and processed foods begin to taste too salty.