Sodium: How Much Do We Really Need?

by Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

The average American consumes over 3,400 mg of sodium each day, which is equal to 1½ teaspoons of salt. While it’s a fact that people who consume too much sodium tend to have higher blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, there is conflicting information about the recommended amount of sodium that healthy Americans need. How much do we really need?

The effect of excess sodium intake can lead to serious health risks. Sodium holds on to excess fluid in your body, resulting in an increase in blood pressure. Since high blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease, reducing sodium intake is considered one of the easiest ways to prevent heart disease and premature death.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that the average American should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium each day. As we age, our blood pressure rises. Therefore a diet low in sodium is recommended for everyone, including those without hypertension. If you are over 50, or if you are at any age and are African-American, have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Since close to 50 percent of the U.S. population falls into one of these high-risk categories, the AHA recommends a diet containing no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day for all Americans as a preventive measure.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is often recommended as the first-line approach to reducing hypertension through diet. The basic principles of this diet are to consume fresh, unprocessed foods with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, healthy oils, nuts, seeds, and legumes. There are two diets you can choose to follow: the standard DASH diet (2,300 mg per day) or the lower-sodium DASH diet (1,500 mg per day).

Research has shown that participants who followed the DASH diet reduced their blood pressure significantly. The subjects who lowered their sodium intake from 2,500 mg to 1,500 mg reduced their blood pressure more than those who reduced their intake from 3,300 mg to 2,500 mg.

To reduce sodium intake, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend choosing lower sodium foods, eating less processed food and more fresh foods, and preparing more meals at home. This is important advice since 75 percent of people’s daily sodium intake comes from processed food or foods eaten away from home.

Tips to Lower Sodium Intake

  • Eat as much fresh food as possible. If fresh fruits and vegetables are not available, frozen is the next best choice because minimal (if any) preservatives are added. Avoid frozen vegetables with added sauces containing salt, and limit canned vegetables with added salt.

  • Explore other options to salt. There are many sodium-free and low-sodium seasoning blends on the market. Try using fresh herbs and spices to flavor foods instead of salt.

  • Limit added condiments, salad dressings, and sauces. These products often have added salt. Look at the Nutrition Facts label to find low-sodium options. For example, condiments such as mustard and horseradish pack a lot of flavor with minimal sodium. Try making your own salad dressings out of oil, vinegar, and spices to limit sodium. Flavored vinegars add unique flavors to food, as well.

  • Limit carbohydrate intake. The largest source of sodium in the American diet is bread and rolls. These foods are not high-sodium foods per serving, but we tend to eat too much from this food group, which makes the sodium content add up.

The Bottom Line

As with everything, moderation is key. We need some sodium in our diet, but limiting the highest sodium foods and additives is the best way to reduce overall sodium intake and decrease our cardiovascular disease risk.

Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Meet Our Writer
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.

Carmen is a Registered Dietitian. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she has spent her career working at Johns Hopkins and is also an adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College. Carmen has over 20 years of experience in nutritional counseling, education, writing, and program management and is a certified specialist in adult weight management. She enjoys educating her students and clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness.