You probably consume too much sodium, here is why you should care.

The majority of Canadians (and Americans) consume way too much sodium, there is a good chance you are one of them. What does it mean to consume way too much sodium? It means that we are consuming sodium at levels that put us at a statistcally increased risk of bad things happening to our health. Canadians consume about 3400 mg of sodium a day, which is about 50% more than the safe threshold of sodium consumption ( also known as the tolerable upper intake level – set at 2300 mg).   

Why does this matter? Eating too much salt is one of the “easiest” ways to increase your chance of having high blood pressure. 20% of Canadians are living with high blood pressure and nearly 1 in 3 of those people have high blood pressure primarily because they eat too much sodium. High blood pressure is bad, you do not want high blood pressure.  

What does high blood pressure do to my body?

If you have high blood pressure, and it is not properly controlled through diet or medication, you can cause extensive damage to the arteries in some of the most sensitive parts of your body including your brain, heart and kidneys.  This means that high blood pressure puts you at greater risk of stroke, heart attack, eye damage and kidney disease.  

You might be thinking this will never happen to me, or I won’t have to worry about this for another 50 years, and you might be right. But, there are some more immediate considerations you should keep in mind about high blood pressure and sodium intake. 

Why should I worry about sodium and high blood pressure right now?

1) Because you don’t like going to the doctor:  High blood pressure is one of the most common reasons why Canadians have to visit a doctor.

2) Because you don’t like taking medicaton:  High blood pressure is one of the most common seasons why Canadians have to take medication.  

3) Because you can have high blood pressure without knowing it:  High blood pressure is one of those issues where, if it is not being monitored, you won’t know you have it until bad things start happening to your health. It is not unusual for people to have high blood pressure without even knowing it.  

4) Because it can happen to you (or your parents): The risk for high blood pressure increases with age. The older you are, the more mindful you should be about your sodium intake.  About half of the people with high blood pressure in Canada are over the age of 65. However, this also means that the other half of people living with high blood pressure in Canada are under the age of 65. Youth does not necessarily preclude you from this issue. Despite the rate being lowest for those under age 20, the majority of children and adolscents in this country consume far too much sodium, and this is a major concern for their long term health and wellbeing.  

5) Too much sodium can cause other issues too: Consuming too much sodium on a regular basis may contribute to uncomfortable bloating and water retention and has also been linked with a causing common annoyance, headaches. On a more chronic scale, excess sodium intake has also been linked with stomach cancer and osteoporosis.  

Will passing on the salt at the dinner table be enough to reduce my risk?

Probably not. Salt added at the dinner table does not actually contribute that much to the sodium intake of most Canadians. Don’t get me wrong, cutting salt at the table can help, but it will probably not make that significant of an impact on your overall consumption.  

So where is all this salt coming from? 

Most of the salt you consume comes from processe/packaged foods at the grocery store as well as restaurants and fast food. Bread actually contributes more sodium to the Canadian diet than any other food. This is not necessarily because bread is outrageously high in sodium, it is more to do with the fact we eat so much of it. Should you stop eating bread? No. But it would help if you tried to choose breads that were lower in sodium.  

The second biggest contributor to our sodium intake is processed meats, and these bad boys are a whole different story. Processed meats include bacon ( ham/turkey), sausages, salami, corned beef, beef jerky and hot dogs. I don’t like to overly polarize food, but I have to say that processed meats are one of the worst food choices you can make. Not only do they represent one of the most significant contributors to salt intake in the Canadian diet, but they are also linked with causing cancer.  On top of that, they are generally high in calories and saturated fat and low in nutrients.

You should limit your intake of these foods as much as possible and seriously consider eliminating them completely from your diet. 

Where else is the salt coming from? 

For all you pasta lovers out there, you should know that pasta dishes are the third largest contributor to sodium intake in the Canadian diet. This is primarily due the high sodium content in most sauces.

Pasta sauce is one of the potentially healthier foods out there that can be very high in sodium. Cottage cheese, lean unprocesed deli meats ( such as turkey/chicken breast), cottage cheese, canned vegetable soups and canned fish are among the others. 

 Does this mean you should avoid or go without these foods? No, but there is one important thing you can do to help you choose the lowest sodium options within these food categories. ( I tell you what that is in the next section)

I’m not ready to drastically change my dietary habits, can I still lower my sodium intake and reduce my risk of getting high blood pressure?  

Yes.  Reading food labels is the first line of defense against excessive sodium intake. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to sodium and high blood pressure there is alot you can change ( drinking less alcohol, quitting smoking, eating more fruits and vegetables, eating out less, eating less packaged foods etc). But the one thing you can do tomorrow, without much effort or sacrifice on your part, is to start reading food labels on packaged foods. 

The bad news is that much of our sodium comes from packaged foods, the good news is that all packaged foods have food labels. Use this to your advantage. Continue to pick the foods you like, just choose the varieties with the lowest sodium content per serving ( keep calories in mind as well).  Not sure how to read a food label? Click here to learn how. Do it because you probably eat too much sodium, and because it does matter that you do so.  

Final Thoughts

High blood pressure and excessive sodium intake are significant public health concerns in Canada and the United States. The good news is you should be able to lower your sodium intake without drastic changes to the way you eat.  I am hoping that the matter-of-fact approach I have taken in today’s article will help encourage you to do so. As always, I wish you the best of luck in your food and nutrition endeavours. 

Until next time, Eat Up!

Andy De Santis RD MPH

Any statistical data referenced in today’s posting is sourced from a variety of Health Canada publications from the past 1-10 years. Health Canada does a commendable job of tracking the way Canadian’s eating and providing educational public health content. I highly recommend using their resources if you are interested in learning more about sodium intake, high blood pressure or any other public health concern.