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Do you need to watch your sodium intake?

For those at risk of high blood pressure, too much sodium can be deadly. Here are easy tips to reduce the soldium in your diet.
/ Source: TODAY

Recently a consumer group sued the FDA saying that the amount of salt Americans consume is leading to unnecessary deaths and regulators aren't doing enough about it. Should you think twice before reaching for that salt shaker? Sports nutritionist Heidi Skolnik, consultant to the New York Giants football team and the School of American Ballet, was invited on “Today” to share advice on who needs to avoid excess sodium and how to do it.

Dietary guidelines suggest that people with salt-sensitivity should limit their intake to 1500 milligrams a day, or slightly more than 1/2-teaspoon. The rest of the population is advised to adhere to a limit of 2,300 milligrams of salt a day, which is about 1 teaspoon.

Now most people think that means how much salt they can add to their food everyday. That is wrong. The salt most people consume does not come from the salt shaker — only about 10 percent of it does, while approximately 75 percent of the sodium that people consume comes form processed and restaurant foods.

There are certain groups of Americans who need to watch their salt intake to control or prevent hypertension or high blood pressure. High blood pressure affects about 50 million — or 1 in 4 — Americans. The at-risk groups are those who have or have had a history of hypertension, African-Americans, the elderly and those with a salt-sensitivity. About 26 percent of Americans with normal blood pressure, and nearly 60 percent of those with hypertension, are salt sensitive. Conversely, this means 75 percent of Americans are not at high risk due to salt-sensitivity. Overall, people should be mindful of their health history and make decisions based on that.

But African Americans, the elderly, and anyone who has a family history or personal history with hypertension needs to be conscious of salt intake. These at-risk groups also need to manage their overall diet. They should read the labels on foods and be aware of "hidden salt" in foods such as soup, salted nuts, processed meats, canned vegetables and frozen dinners. Most Caucasian, healthy, young active Americans do not need to be overly concerned about restricting their sodium intake or be hyper-vigilant about how much salt they're consuming. However, if you are the type of person who is always eating fast-food, processed food, a lot of high salt items you should try to mix it up with some lower salt alternatives.

Watch out foodsIt's hard to monitor your salt intake when you are eating out. For example, a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich contains 930 milligrams of sodium, that's 1/2 the recommended daily intake for people sensitive to salt. Frozen meals also contain “hidden salt.” Most of the time you don't have the option to control your salt intake with fast or frozen meals but there are plenty of food items out there that do offer lower sodium options.

Check out these comparissons:

  • 3 ounces of processed turkey has approximately 900 milligrams of sodium vs. 3 ounces of cooked turkey breast with only approximately 45 milligrams of sodium.
  • 1 cup of canned spinach has approximately 720 milligrams of sodium vs. fresh spinach which has virtually no sodium. Often the manufacturers need sodium for the canning process to make it last longer or they need it for texture or taste depending on the product.

Reading labelsThose concerned with salt should look for alternatives like low-sodium soups, fresh or frozen meats, unsalted nuts and other low-sodium foods. There are a lot of different sodium labels on food and most people don't know the differences between them they only know it means less salt — but less salt than what?

Look for labels on foods, such as:

  • Low sodium — 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium — 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • Salt-free — 5 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • Light in sodium — at least 50 percent less sodium than the original version of the food
  • Reduced sodium — at least 25 percent less sodium than the original version

Foods that provide little or no sodium often also provide potassium. According to Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, potassium has been shown to work in concert with sodium to regulate blood pressure. Fresh fruits like cantaloupe, bananas, watermelon, oranges, and orange juice have virtually no sodium and a good amount of potassium. Most vegetables have very little to no sodium. For example, 1 cup of carrots has 40 milligrams of sodium; 1 cup of broccoli has 10 milligrams of sodium.

However, there is another group of people who need to make sure they are getting enough salt — those who are active or athletic. Oftentimes, these individuals will lose important sodium in sweat, and need to make sure they replace it by eating salty foods like pretzels, salted nuts or drinking a sports drink. For example, a "heavy sweater" may lose as much as 2.5 liters of sweat in an hour and as much as 2,500 to 5,000 milligrams of sodium in an hour. Research now shows that some athletes — especially those involved in long, intense workouts like marathon runners, soccer players during all-day matches, tennis players playing in all day matches, or football players during two-a-day practices need to substantially increase their sodium intake to avoid muscle-cramping as well as heat-related illnesses, or on the opposite end, hyponatremia (low blood sodium) which can lead to death. These individuals should eat foods and beverages with added sodium such as salted pretzels, pizza, a specialized sports drink like Gatorade Endurance Formula, or even pizza as part of their training diet.