What is sodium and how does the body use it?

Sodium is a chemical element (symbol Na) that creates an electrical charge when mixed with water, which classifies it as an electrolyte. The body uses electrolytes like sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate to create the electrical flow required for nerve transmission, muscle contraction, fluid balancing, pH balancing, and kidney functioning. Sodium is found in dietary compounds such as sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).

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How much sodium do I need in my diet?

Level Milligrams
Minimum 500
Recommended 1,500
Maximum 2,300
Avg. U.S. Diet 3,400

Source: American Heart Association1

Individuals who sweat excessively, such as endurance athletes and construction workers, may need to consume sodium at levels higher than the recommendations to replace the sodium lost through sweat. People with high blood pressure or sodium sensitivity may need to limit sodium intake more aggressively than the recommendations.

What are the dangers of eating too much sodium?

The average American consumes more than twice the recommended amount of sodium, which increases our risk for high blood pressure, porous bones, and cancer.2

High Blood Pressure

Our bodies dilute excessive levels of sodium by increasing fluid retention. The increase in bodily fluid increases our blood pressure — similar to adding more air to a tire. Prolonged high blood pressure (hypertension) is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, which dramatically increases our risk for heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure.

Porous Bones

Eating high levels of sodium can cause the body to excrete calcium in the urine. If calcium levels in the bloodstream are low, the body can extract calcium from bones, which can lead to porous bones (osteoporosis).3


Researchers have found a correlation between the consumption of salt (particularly salt-preserved foods) and stomach cancer, which is the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.4 As a result, The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research both recommend limiting salt intake to minimize the risk of contracting stomach cancer.5, 6

Potassium: A Mitigator

Potassium can counteract the negative effects of sodium by relaxing the walls of blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. The balance between potassium and sodium is particularly important. One study found that people with the highest sodium-to-potassium ratio had double the risk of dying from a heart attack as compared to those with the lowest ratio.7

Are you eating too much sodium? Keep a food diary and find out. Track sodium!

Which foods contain large amounts of sodium?

Roughly 75% of the sodium consumed in a typical U.S. diet is added by food manufacturers.1 Consequently, minimizing highly-processed foods in your diet is a crucial element of reducing your sodium consumption.

Food Categories High in Sodium

  • Foods made in brine (pickles, olives, sauerkraut)
  • Salty and smoked meats (bologna, corned beef, bacon, ham, sausage, lunch meats)
  • Salty and smoked fish (anchovies, caviar, dried fish, smoked salmon, sardines, herring)
  • Snack/junk food (potato chips, pretzels, popcorn, salted nuts, crackers)
  • Sauces (Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, and teriyaki)
  • Condiments (seasoned salts, ketchup, mustard)
  • Cheese
  • Salad dressing
  • Soups
  • Restaurant entrees
Example Quantity Sodium (mg)
Creamy Tomato Soup 1 bowl 1,125
Taco Bell Bean Burrito 1 burrito 1,060
Soy Sauce 1 tbsp 920
Green Olives 10 small olives 686
Lean Cuisine Spaghetti w/ Meat Sauce 1 meal 520
Pretzel Twists 17 pretzels 450
Dill Pickle Slices 6 slices 400
Bacon 2 slices 356

Additional Resources

  1. How much sodium should I eat per day?. American Heart Association.
  2. What We Eat in America: Nutrient intakes from food by gender and age. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2009-10. US Department of Agriculture; Agricultural Research Service.
  3. He, F. J., & Macgregor, G. A. (2008). A comprehensive review on salt and health and current experience of worldwide salt reduction programmes. Journal of Human Hypertension, 23(6), 363-384.
  4. Wang, X., Terry, P. D., & Yan, H. (2009). Review of salt consumption and stomach cancer risk: Epidemiological and biological evidence. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 15(18), 2204.
  5. Fay, S (2016). Salt: Shaking up the link with stomach cancer. World Cancer Research Fund International.
  6. Questions about AICR’s Stomach Cancer Report. American Institute for Cancer Research.
  7. Yang, Liu, et al. (2011). Sodium and Potassium Intake and Mortality Among US Adults. Archives of Internal Medicine, 171(13), 1183.

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