What Can Happen to Your Body When You Eat Too Much Salt
The average Canadian consumes more than double the daily recommended intake of sodium. Here's why that's a serious problem—and what we can do about it.
Too much salt wreaks havoc on your blood pressure
If you’re the type to regularly tuck into a bag of chips, it’s worth reconsidering the habit. Too much sodium isn’t good for anyone, but for people who have hypertension, salt—a sodium compound—is especially dangerous. Sodium leads to small spikes in blood pressure for people who don’t already have hypertension and large spikes in people who do, according to a 2017 review of 185 studies. Hypertension is the key driver of a number of cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks, strokes and coronary artery disease.
Many restaurant meals pack the amount of salt you should have in an entire day…
A 2013 survey published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health examined 20 sit-down and 65 fast-food restaurants across Canada and found that the average dish contained 1,455 milligrams of sodium.
Find out which fast foods nutritionists never eat.
…and a fancy sit-down meal may be even worse than a fast-food one
The same study found that 40 per cent of sit-down restaurant menu items packed at least 1,500 milligrams of sodium (versus 18 per cent of fast-food menu items). The saltiest meal options? Wraps, sandwiches, ribs and pastas that contained meat or seafood.
Most Canadians consume 3,400 milligrams of salt per day
Sodium is essential for contracting and relaxing muscles, transmitting nerve signals and maintaining adequate fluid levels, but we don’t need much of it for these important functions. Health Canada’s recommended sodium intake for people aged nine to 50 is 1,500 milligrams a day. That’s about one teaspoon of salt, the amount you get in about four slices of pizza. Total intake shouldn’t exceed 2,300 milligrams daily for adults.
Cutting back could have an even greater effect depending on your background
The studies in the 2017 review mostly relied on white participants; the authors noted that the few studies with Asian and Black participants suggest that a reduction in salt consumption has an even more significant blood-pressure-lowering effect in these populations. This is believed to be due to genetic differences in how the body processes salt.
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There’s no way to tell how much salt is in your dish
In 2016, Ontario became the first province in Canada to require chain restaurants to list calories on their menus. Those pushing for the move asked that sodium be labelled, but the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care decided against it. (Critics claimed that decision was a concession to the restaurant industry.) So far, the only jurisdictions in North America to require that sodium levels be stated on menus are Philadelphia and New York City, where meals that contain a day’s worth or more of sodium are marked.
Don’t expect to see big changes any time soon
In 2012, in consultation with the food industry and health experts, Health Canada launched voluntary sodium reduction targets for various categories. In the case of tortillas, for example, the goal was to lower the average sodium level from 700 to 550 milligrams per serving by 2016. But a Health Canada report published in 2017 found that only 14 per cent of categories had met their numbers. Half of the products examined showed no progress at all. Given the spotty compliance, many health experts are now calling for reduction targets to be mandatory.
“Healthy” options can be just as dangerous
Even seemingly nutritious foods can pack a salty punch. Half a cup of canned tomatoes can have 400 milligrams of salt. A cup of bran cereal can have about 240 milligrams of sodium. And just three ounces (85 grams) of smoked salmon can have more than 660 milligrams. To reduce sodium, try to eat foods in their freshest form possible, and be sure to check the sodium levels noted on the label.
Learn how to read a nutrition label like a professional dietitian.
Salt hides away in processed foods…
According to Health Canada, 77 per cent of our sodium intake comes from processed and fast foods. Here are some of the biggest offenders:
- Chicken noodle soup: 1,613 milligrams/can
- Meat-heavy takeout pizza: 693 milligrams/one slice (That’s more than 2,000 milligrams per three slices!)
- Processed salami: 1,264 milligrams/100 gram serving
- Creamy cucumber salad dressing: 131 milligrams/one tablespoon
- Store-bought bakery bread: 240 milligrams of sodium per 50 gram serving
Here’s how to find the healthiest bread at the grocery store.
…and you likely don’t even know you’re eating it
Often, we don’t taste the sodium because it’s so diffuse in the food. For example, a single croissant has 424 milligrams, while eggs Benedict can pack a whopping 2,015 milligrams of sodium.
Why is salt there in the first place? For starters, it’s a preservative. Also, it acts as a fermenting agent in breads and causes food to retain water—for products sold by weight, more liquid means more profit.
Salt can hurt your sleep…
If you find yourself making frequent nighttime bathroom trips, salt could be the culprit. A 2017 European study found that men above 60 who reduced their salt intake by 25 per cent decreased the number of times they got up to urinate in the night, from 2.3 to 1.4 times, on average.
…and increase your risk of heart failure
A 2017 Finnish study that followed more than 4,600 people over 12 years found that those who had the highest salt levels in their urine at the start were more than twice as likely to suffer heart failure than those who had the lowest levels. The increased risk was found even in salt lovers who didn’t have high blood pressure.
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It may lead to weight gain
In 2015, scientists at Queen Mary University of London found evidence that suggested a link between sodium and obesity. By measuring sodium levels in more than 1,200 study participants’ urine and recording their food intake over a four-day period, they found that those with high salt levels were more likely to be overweight, even if they weren’t eating more calories than the low-salt group.
Kids are overloading
According to Health Canada, 77 per cent of children ages one to three and 93 per cent of kids ages four to eight are exceeding the recommended daily sodium intake.
Salt increases your risk of kidney stones
It’s not clear why, but sodium likes to grab on to calcium before it’s flushed out of the body through urine. The extra urinary calcium can form into crystals and eventually lead to kidney stones. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Urology, women whose diets were high in sodium were between 11 and 61 per cent more likely to develop the painful condition. Another small study found that a low-salt diet reduced urinary calcium in both men and women who were prone to kidney stones.
You’re falling for fake news
Both the food industry and the salt industry fund research on dietary sodium. “Their interests will often fund the low-quality evidence,” says Dr. Norm Campbell, a sodium and hypertension expert at the University of Calgary’s Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta. “And even when they haven’t funded it, they will market the low-quality evidence, increasing its visibility.”
It might be hiding in your meat
Salt water is injected into some fresh and frozen meat to make it juicy and larger in volume. How can you make sure your choice cut hasn’t been sodium-boosted? Look for packages with no nutrition label—only meat that hasn’t been treated with salt can legally be sold without one in Canada.
Don’t miss our ultimate guide to healthy grocery shopping.
30,540 Canadians die each year due to high sodium intake
That figure could be prevented per year if Canadians brought their sodium intake below 2,000 milligrams per day, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Public Health.
Here’s expert advice on how to live to 100—and love it.
High sodium intake can lead to stomach cancer
Each year, fourteen per cent of stomach cancer cases in the U.K. can be avoided if people kept salt intake to less than 2,400 milligrams per day, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.
Here are 20 foods that may reduce your risk for cancer.
You’re probably hooked on salt
When our diets are high in sodium, we find low-sodium foods bland. The good news? It only takes about six weeks for our taste buds to adapt to lower-salt foods, says Campbell. Stick with a lower-sodium diet, and you soon won’t miss the salt.
Your potassium deficit is a liability
Like sodium, potassium is an important mineral in the body. While excess sodium increases blood pressure, potassium eases tension in blood vessel walls and helps keep blood pressure in check. The mineral also aids in sodium excretion so that excess salt doesn’t stick around and cause problems, says Dr. Suzanne Oparil, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Blood tests ordered by your doctor can confirm if you’re low on potassium, but so long as you’re eating your fruits and vegetables, you shouldn’t have to worry. High sources of potassium include white beans, spinach, banana, avocado, sweet potato and yogurt.
Learn to spot the signs you’re not eating enough vegetables.
If you happen to be “salt-sensitive,” sodium is especially harmful
Some people’s bodies are less efficient at flushing out excess salt, and it’s estimated that more than a third of us are affected by the mineral in this way. If you get bloated after salty meals, it’s a sign of salt sensitivity, says Oparil. If hypertension runs in your family, you’re also more likely to be salt-sensitive.
Sodium is also particularly damaging if you’re over 50, overweight or have diabetes
Studies show that sodium causes blood pressure to increase more later in life. “As we get older, we become more sensitive to salt,” says Campbell, explaining that the aging body simply isn’t as efficient at flushing out sodium. Blood pressure spikes after eating sodium-rich meals are also dramatic in people who are overweight and people who have diabetes, though scientists aren’t clear on why.
Here are the silent signs of diabetes you might be ignoring.
Sea salts and rock salts aren’t better than table salt
The fancier products have trace amounts of minerals, like iron and potassium, which are destroyed in the processing of table salt. But, according to Dietitians of Canada, the nutritional value of sea and rock salts is so insignificant that switching to more expensive seasonings won’t positively affect your health. All salts contain the same amount of sodium by weight.
“Reduced sodium” doesn’t mean healthy
If the original product is way too high in sodium, a 25 per cent reduction could still leave you with a product that’s too salty. To be sure a food is actually low in sodium, read the nutrition label. Avoid products that contain 15 per cent or more of the recommended daily intake of sodium per serving. You can also look for the “low sodium” label. Unlike products that advertise reduced sodium, products that use this wording must have 140 milligrams or less per 100 gram serving.
Now that you know what can happen when you eat too much salt, find out the healthiest fish you can eat.