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Is 1,500 mg of sodium a realistic goal?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

I grew up in a salt-loving family. We salted everything: tomatoes, melon slices, any food on our plate - before we even tasted it to see if it really needed more salt. One of my early vivid memories is of getting a McDonald's hamburger and fries and pouring a packet of salt on each before drizzling ketchup over the fries.

I'm the only one of my family members who has (so far, at least) avoided high blood pressure. Though I sometimes crave a salty treat, I don't seek salt out, and I never add it to anything I eat, save for the occasional bowl of popcorn.

But as I write in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, I think even I might be hard-pressed to cut my sodium intake to the level that's likely to be recommended in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, to be issued in December. If that document adopts the recommendation of the advisory committee whose findings largely inform the final guidelines, Americans will be urged to gradually reduce their sodium intake from the more than 3,000 mg we now consume, on average, to just 1,500 mg daily, well below the 2,300 mg that the current (2005) guidelines allow.

Even if you don't add salt at the stove or the table, it's hard to keep your sodium intake that low. Packaged and processed foods and restaurant meals are by far our biggest sources of sodium; even skim milk delivers a dose. You'd have to cook practically everything you eat from scratch to stay within 1,500 mg a day. The advisory committee recognizes this difficulty and notes that much of the sodium-reduction work ahead must be done by food manufacturers.

As for the McDonald's meal of my youth, here's what the current nutrition data says about its sodium content: A plain McDonald's burger has 520 mg; add cheese and the new total is 750 mg. A small serving of fries has 160 mg; a medium has 270 mg, and a large has 350. A package of ketchup adds 110 mg; one salt packet contains 270 mg.
So that little meal of mine would have added up to at least 1,330 mg of sodium.

That doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.

Do you think you could get by on just 1,500 mg of sodium a day? Check the nutrition facts for the foods you typically eat. I think you might be in for a surprise.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | November 2, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Dietary Guidelines, Nutrition and Fitness, Sodium  
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Next: Is the FDA doing its job?


Salty is a taste people have acquired over time and through consumption of processed foods. It takes time to lower the desire for salty tasting foods. Cut back the quantity of sodium consumed by reading all labels and making the best choice possible. Don't try to lower the amount you eat too rapidly you must acquire the taste for what foods actually tastes like. Over time prepared foods will taste too salty (yuck) to the extreme. This is good, but offers a problem of what to eat when not home preparing whole foods. Do your best, choose items with the least amount of preparation. Don't be fooled by label claims of reduced sodium, one brand of soup with this label actually has more than 900 mg of sodium per serving. It is less than the original but is in no way a healthy amount. I started reducing the amount of sodium that I consume years ago and now I have difficulty tolerating the taste of any processed foods. As a by product my husband has learned to enjoy foods with less salt and more seasonings. Do you remember when baby food was highly salted so that when the mother tasted it she would like it? That was changed because we knew that it was not good for baby - too bad that didn't translate to adults.

Posted by: TeachHealth | November 2, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I probaby had a headstart on not a lot of salt because in the 1930s my mother had read that salt and pepper weren't good for children; much later both times I was pregnant I did without any added salt at all, and that really was good preparation for a very low-salt diet for the rest of my life.

Posted by: sarajustin | November 2, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Reducing salt intake might be a good idea, but it may not matter since our bodies have irresistible physiologic mechanisms to defend a higher level of salt intake, according to a 2009 report in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

The authors of the study don't address whether sodium restriction would be healthful. They simply question whether any measures at the public health level can even work. Their answer: probably not.

The authors conclude that the average person has powerful physiologic mechanisms working to keep sodium intake around 3,000 mg/day, at least.

-Steve Parker, M.D.

References: McCarron, David, et al. Can dietary sodium intake be modified by public policy? Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. 4 (2009): 1,878-1,882.

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | November 3, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure I understand why the recommended intake should be lowered if we are nowhere near the current recommended intake now. Wouldn't it make more sense to work to get people closer to the current recommendation, esp. by encouraging makers of commercial foods to lower the sodium in those foods?

Posted by: profmom | November 3, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

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