Sodium is one of the most problematic essential compounds necessary for human life. This electrolyte plays an important role in our enzyme operations, muscle contractions, fluid maintenance, glucose absorption, our nervous system, and even our heart performance.
Why is something so essential such a problem?
It all comes down to our main source of sodium intake. Salt. This wonderful culinary ingredient makes everything we cook taste just a little bit better. Salt is not only appealing to our taste buds but, when used in appropriate amounts, it actually has the power to enhance the flavors of whatever you’re cooking. The downside? Salt is an added ingredient to almost everything we eat from a delicious meal at your favorite restaurant to the packaged, processed, and canned foods in your kitchen. In fact, around 75 percent of the sodium we consume is via these packaged and processed foods including hidden offenders such as lunch meat and frozen dinners.
For most Americans, getting enough sodium isn’t the issue, but getting the right and, most importantly, a balanced amount is the struggle.
What is Sodium?
Per the Scientific American, “an electrolyte is a compound which produces ions when dissolved in a solution such as water. These ions have either a positive or negative electrical charge, which is why we refer to these compounds as electro-lytes.”
You can refer to electrolytes in various ways. When it comes to nutrition, electrolytes refer to “minerals dissolved in the body’s fluids, creating electrically charged ions. The electrolytes that are the most important in nutrition are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate.”
When we’re talking about nutrition and sodium we want to narrow the field down to sodium chloride, also called dietary salt or table salt. This commonly used salt is around “40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride” and around “90 percent of the sodium we eat is in the form of sodium chloride.” Where’s the other 10 percent? These are more hidden offenders — such as baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate — which are generally used to preserve, enhance colors, and texturize our foods.
How Our Bodies Use Sodium
As mentioned earlier, sodium is an essential compound that keeps our bodies working appropriately. Primarily, sodium is a key ingredient for the function of our nerves and muscles and in balancing bodily fluids. After you consume sodium — via food, beverages, or supplements — your kidneys pick up the task of filtering and controlling how much sodium is in your body. The kidneys act as a regulator by “releasing excess sodium in urine,” while also “actively retaining or releasing water in urine.” Why is this an essential function? It not only keeps sodium levels healthy, but it also means that “maintenance of body fluids isn’t as dependent on external water sources” as you may believe.
Basically, depending on diet and lifestyle, you have a large amount of control over bodily fluid balance.
The Right Amount
Sodium’s bad reputation stems from the fact that Americans consume too much dietary salt.
When there’s too much sodium in our bloodstream, our kidneys can’t filter it out into our urine, and this buildup results in high blood pressure also called hypertension. High blood pressure leads to various series heart and kidney related problems such as coronary artery disease, an enlarged heart, aneurysms, strokes, dementia or cognitive impairment, kidney scarring, kidney artery aneurysm, and even heart and/or kidney failure. Yet, the health risks don’t stop there. High blood pressure can also affect the health of your eyes — nerve damage, fluid buildup, and blood vessel damage — as well as cause sexual dysfunction, trouble sleeping, and bone loss.
On the other hand, when you have a sodium deficiency, also called hyponatremia, it can lead to moderately severe symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and confusion, fatigue and drowsiness, weakness in your muscles — as well as spasms and cramps. With that said, if left unattended, hyponatremia may have serious side effects such as seizures and even coma.
How much is the right amount to get that balance between hypertension and hyponatremia?
Per the American Heart Association, an adult should consume “no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) [of sodium] a day.” Yet, the ideal cap on that sodium intake is actually 1,500 mg per day. If you’re a gram’s person, this means that you should be eating “less than 2.3 grams per day.” With that said, who’s got a food scale at home? Possibly some of us, but not everyone. Let’s put it this way. Adults should be consuming around “1 teaspoon of table salt a day.”
Need a little more info? Here’s a nifty little chart provided by Heart.org, listing how much sodium chloride is in your average servings of table salt. This is a great way to break down your daily intake per familiar serving amounts:
- 1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium
- 1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium
- 3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium
- 1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium
Keep in mind, these dietary guidelines are very strict due to the fact that most Americans are overconsuming, therefore we need to first lower and balance our sodium intake before adding more back in.
Health Benefits of Sodium
Getting a balanced intake of sodium is truly crucial. Too much and you damage your heart and kidneys. Too little and your body goes into a catatonic state. With that said, there are other great health benefits from sodium when consumed in the appropriate amount.
Improves Brain Function
If you get too little sodium, your brain functioning tanks. This manifests in lethargy, irritability, confusion, and finally, the ultimate shutdown, coma. On the other hand, when you consume a balanced diet of dietary sodium, it actually aids in brain function. Not only can it sharpen your cognitive skills, but sodium “is an important element for the development of the brain since it works to improve brain function.”
Reduces Risk of Muscle Cramps
A very common cause of muscle cramps and spasms is dehydration. When your body loses too much water, this also means that your sodium levels are most likely tanking as well. Sodium is carried out of your body through your sweat, as well as your urine. Therefore, this form of “sodium depletion has also been associated with cramps.” Proper intake of sodium is a great way to avoid not only dehydration but also muscle cramps.
Aids in Absorption of Glucose
Glucose is a specific dietary sugar that is transported through our bloodstream and is used for various functions in our body, such as energy. When our bloodstream is too glucose-rich (also called your blood sugar levels) this can lead to conditions such as diabetes. Therefore, the proper distribution and usage of glucose is incredibly important. Sodium has been found to play an integral role in the absorption of glucose. Getting into the science of the process, per Science Direct, “Glucose (and galactose) is actively transported into the epithelium by the sodium-glucose cotransporter (SGLT1) in the brush border membrane (1), and the sodium gradient across the brush border membrane is maintained by the basolateral Na/K-pump.”
All this alien language is simply to say that sodium helps glucose absorb into your body for proper usage.
Controls Blood Pressure
Along with the absorption of glucose, sodium also plays an integral role in controlling your blood pressure. It’s all about the kidneys, which are the vessels that help filter and remove unwanted fluids from your body. How does this work? The body’s kidneys “use osmosis to draw the extra water out of your blood,” a process using a “delicate balance of sodium and potassium to pull the water across a wall of cells from the bloodstream into a collecting channel that leads to the bladder.” Therefore, when your sodium levels are unbalanced (elevated in particular), this disrupts the osmosis process, which results in “higher blood pressure due to the extra fluid and extra strain on the delicate blood vessels leading to the kidneys.
A sodium-healthy diet also means healthy skin. When you consume too much salt, it oftentimes results in water retention — an “excess buildup of fluid in the circulatory system, body tissues, or cavities in the body” — leading to bloating and stress on your skin. This stress can manifest in dry or cracked skin, as well as “overproduction of oil as the oil glands try to compensate for the dehydration of the skin.” In the end, whether your skin is dry or oily, it oftentimes leads to breakouts.
When you’re looking to find healthy sources of sodium, you’re in luck. Almost all plant-based foods have certain amounts of sodium. The key to proper sodium intake comes down to your own culinary endeavors and avoiding certain foods that are high in sodium. The second half of this journey is pretty simple — either avoid processed and packaged foods or always look at the ingredients list. That small block of information on the back of your favorite processed foods will let you know how much sodium is present. Then it’s up to you to make the right decision.
With that said, here are some wonderful, healthy, plant-based foods to buy in place of those packaged foods!
Canned foods are notorious for added sodium. While there’s always the option of finding a “low salt” or “no added salt” option, the best way to avoid added salt is to buy dry and raw beans, oftentimes found in the bulk section of your local grocery or health food store. Yes, raw beans take more time. You’ll need to prep by soaking and rinsing and then cooking them. With that said, you will also reap a higher level of nutrients and a lower amount of unwanted sodium.
Once you get your groove with preparing and cooking raw beans, you’ll find a whole new appreciation for these diverse and nutritious legumes. They are great in stew, soup, and chili recipes — such as this Three Bean and Sweet Potato Chili or this White Bean and Orzo Minestrone, — served cold as a salad dish — such as this Fava Beans and Za’atar Potato Salad or in this Summers End Black Bean and Corn Macaroni Salad — or even as a vegan meat substitute — such as in this Easy Black Bean Burger With Tahini Slaw.
Canned fruits are just as bad an offender as canned beans when it comes to sodium. Why do they do this? It’s all about preserving the foods. Salt has been used for hundreds of years as a way to preserve foods. From salting meat for sailors at sea to the canned food you purchase on the grocery store shelf to this day. Yet, when you buy fresh fruit, you’re not only avoiding that unwanted salt but (just like with canned beans) you also happen to be consuming more powerful nutrients.
If you aren’t able to get to the store often enough for fresh fruit, you can also try purchasing frozen fruit. With that said, it’s important to look at the ingredients labels. Oftentimes, even frozen fruit is packed with sodium. Read, read, read!
With that said, added salt-free frozen fruits are great for smoothies — such as this Blue Banana Smoothie or this Goji Berry and Ginger Smoothie — or even fruit bowls — such as this Key Lime Pie Smoothie Bowl, this Beautiful Berry Coconut Smoothie Bowl, or this Energizing Coffee Cacao Smoothie Bowl.
If you’ve got margarine in your fridge, you may want to throw it out right away. Margarine is marketed as a “healthy” butter alternative, but in fact, it’s filled with harmful agents, chiefly trans fats. On that note, butter is also one of those dairy products that you’ll want to think twice about.
So, now that they’re gone, what do you use for cooking?
Plant-based oils — such as extra-virgin olive, avocado, and coconut — are packed full of healthy fats (think omega-3 and omega-6, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated), plus they offer an array of nutrients on top of those healthy fats that are added to whatever you’re cooking. Plus, while butter and margarine are high in sodium, plant-based oils are actually quite low in sodium making this a great way to cut down on sodium intake.
Coconut oil is great to use in baking such as these Coconutty Cinnamon Roll Pancakes or these Coconut Oil Cookies. Extra-virgin olive oil is a gentle, earthy, and nutritious oil that is great raw, such as in this Simple Turnip Salad, or used in delicate bread, such as this Pistachio Date and Olive Oil Loaf. Avocado, sunflower, and sesame oils all have high smoke temps making them great for stir-fry recipes. Simply use avocado oil in this Savory Shiitake, Tofu, and Cabbage Stir-Fry or try out this sesame and sunflower oil rich Sweet and Sour Tempeh recipe.
There are various positive reasons why people ditch dairy. From clearing skin problems to reducing digestive issues to fighting animal cruelty. Yet, here’s another one! Cow’s milk items — in particular, processed cheese products, buttermilk, and cottage cheese — are high in added sodium. Swap these items out for nut-based “milk” products. Not only will you reduce your sodium intake, but you’ll also be increasing your intake of essential nutrients, which are nuts are rich with!
Try out a few of these nut “milk” based products in lieu of the dairy products in your fridge: Baked Macadamia Feta, Almond Milk Pumpkin Spice Coffee Creamer, Super Easy Versatile Cashew Cream, Homemade Cashew Yogurt, or this Soy Milk Kefir.
For more salt-free or low-salt recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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