The Lowdown on Sodium

One of the hidden causes for health issues is a high intake level of sodium. While the media talks about watching calories and fat grams, the long term impact of high sodium may be as harmful, if not more so. Often we see clients who have worked hard and are making great progress face an abrupt setback on the scale. When we dig into their recent food intake, inevitably we find a high sodium intake from an unsuspected source. Many restaurant “healthy menu” selections are defined as such by calories and fat content, but may contain 2-3 days of desired sodium ingestion in just one entrée’. Sodium is an essential element our bodies require, but few in today’s world risk complications from low intake. Learning about sodium, and where to look for it is one of the vital steps in educating yourself to lead a healthy lifestyle.

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What happens to my body if I eat too much? The Harvard School of Public Health offers the following answer.

In most people, the kidneys have trouble keeping up with the excess sodium in the bloodstream. As sodium accumulates, the body holds onto water to dilute the sodium. This increases both the amount of fluid surrounding cells and the volume of blood in the bloodstream. Increased blood volume means more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels. Over time, the extra work and pressure can stiffen blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. It can also lead to heart failure. There is also some evidence that too much salt can damage the heart, aorta, and kidneys without increasing blood pressure, and that it may be bad for bones, too. High blood pressure is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. It accounts for two-thirds of all strokes and half of heart disease.

Many foods touted as healthy actually contain very high doses of sodium. Chick Fil A, for examples, touts their grilled items as a healthy alternative to their fried selections. Yet, a 12 count order of grilled nuggets has 800 mg, over ½ of a day’s suggested intake, without any condiments. But, how about salads? Surely a food that is primarily a green isn’t high in sodium, right? Not always the case, though. At Zaxby’s, the House Grilled Chicken Zalad has a whopping 1,575 mg, or more than you should have in an entire day.

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Quinoa is a healthy superfood, yet at Panera Bread, the Mediterranean Chicken & Quinoa Salad has 870 mg pf sodium. Kale, another superfood, is smothered in sodium in Panera’s Power Kale Caesar Salad with Chicken, with 1.020 mg. Remember, these amounts are only for the salads themselves, dressing and other additions run the tally up even higher. Panera’s Greek/Herb Vinaigrette dressing adds 380 mg for only 3 tablespoons.

What about sandwiches? Starbuck’s Turkey and Swiss sandwich has 1,140 mg, before condiments, and Panera’s Bacon Turkey Bravo contains over 2,800 mg, almost DOUBLE a day’s desired intake. Chipotle markets themselves as healthy, but a chicken and brown rice bowl can easily top 2,000 mg. Sadly, these are only a few examples of high sodium levels hidden in healthy sounding foods.

How do we improve our health by lowering our intake? The first step is adopting a a bit of a cynical point of view about the nutritional content of food. In other words, instead of assuming that it’s good, based on our perception of “healthy” ingredients, let’s assume it’s bad, until proven otherwise. Remember this little tidbit. If high sodium levels cause you to retain as little as a gallon of fluid, that’s almost 8 extra pounds that you are carrying, every step of the day and lifting up every step.

Jim Harris