Eating plenty of potassium-rich foods is also a good plan.
A high-sodium diet can boost blood pressure, which may raise the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problem. But just how much sodium—a main component of salt—is safe? The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily. Current federal guidelines recommend getting no more than 2,300 mg, while the American Heart Association (AHA) advises a total of just 1,500 mg per day.
Last August, a trio of articles in The New England Journal of Medicine rekindled the long-simmering debate. One, which sparked some media attention, concluded that our average sodium intake is okay for heart health, although too much or too little sodium is a problem. A second article agreed, but also suggested that a potassium-poor diet may be just as bad as one with excess sodium.
But AHA president Dr. Elliott Antman, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, questioned the accuracy of those findings, noting that they were based on one-time urine samples to estimate people’s sodium intakes. “We still feel strongly that it’s important to limit sodium to less than 1,500 mg a day,” he says.
A third study, which pooled data from 66 countries, supports that idea. The authors estimated that consuming more than 2,000 mg of sodium daily is to blame for nearly one in 10 deaths from cardiovascular disease worldwide. What’s more, data from England have shown that strategies to lower salt in processed food have led to drops in blood pressure as well as a reduction in heart attacks and strokes.
Here in the United States, the FDA is still mulling ways to help Americans consume less sodium, most of which comes from processed foods and restaurant meals. Meanwhile, recognizing and avoiding the top contributors of sodium in the typical diet can help.
In addition to shying away from high-sodium foods, you can help lower blood pressure and enhance heart health by eating more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables (which are naturally low in sodium). When you take in more sodium than your body needs, the amount of fluid surrounding your cells and in your blood vessels increases. That raises the pressure inside your blood vessels and makes the heart work harder. Potassium helps the body get rid of excess sodium and relaxes blood vessels, which helps lower blood pressure.
The daily recommended intake for potassium is 4,700 mg. One great source is cantaloupe, says dietitian Kathy McManus, who directs the Department of Nutrtion at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A one-cup serving is high in potassium (417 mg) but also low in calories (53)—and it’s available year-round. “People are usually open to eating familiar fruits and vegetables, so that’s what I focus on,” says McManus, who also recommends tomatoes, peaches, and nectarines, especially when they’re in season. For vegetables, try a baby spinach salad, or roasted asparagus, Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes.
Where’s the salt?
Here are the top five sources of sodium in the American diet, with comments from Brigham and Women’s Hospital dietitian Kathy McManus.