Sodium gets a bad rap, but is it just misunderstood? Why salt intake shouldn’t be off-limits during pregnancy – or ever. PLUS: sneaky hiding places you should know so you don’t accidentally overdo it.
Salt. It’s got a deliciously negative reputation: We’re told that we’re eating too much of it — and it seems like there’s a new headline every day about the various health problems it causes. But the truth is, salt intake is vital for the body to function properly, especially during pregnancy. Problems can arise, though, when we go overboard…and with today’s processed foods, it’s easier to do than ever. But by paying careful attention to what you eat, you can keep your sodium consumption on track.
WHY YOU NEED SODIUM
Sodium is a chemical element that works to regulate the fluid levels, temperature and pH levels of your body. Sodium is added to many foods and is one of the two elements (the other being chlorine) that combine to make up table salt (a.k.a. sodium chloride). Without enough sodium, your muscles, nerves, and organs wouldn’t function like they should. We need it! But we only need so much.
During pregnancy, as you know, your body’s volume of blood and other fluids increases — and sodium helps keep everything in balance. On top of that, iodine, which is added to some table salts (you may have seen the word “iodized” on the salt package label), is critical for your baby’s brain and nervous system development. While iodine deficiency is really rare in the United States, too little of this important mineral during pregnancy can cause stillbirth,miscarriage or abnormal brain development resulting in intellectual disabilities.
HOW MUCH SALT IS OK
Don’t go wrapping pretzel rods in bacon just yet. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans established by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the recommendation is up to about a teaspoon of salt a day — that’s six grams of salt or 2,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium. Even during pregnancy, the same numbers apply. (The only exception is for people with hypertension, African Americans those age 51 and older, who are recommended to aim for 1,500 mg a day.) But sodium is in all sorts of prepared foods, which means the average person still consumes way too much. Most women in the U.S. take in more than seven grams of salt (or 2,800 mg of sodium) daily (and men take in an average of nearly10 grams of salt…yikes).
WHY TOO MUCH IS A PROBLEM
Even before you were pregnant, you likely felt side effects of overdoing it on sodium. Think about one of the times you ate a super-salty meal and felt like a stuffed sausage for the next two days. That feeling is due to all the extra water your body is holding to try to flush out the excess sodium. Swelling of the face, hands, legs, ankles and feet — called edema — is already a very common pregnancy symptom. Overdoing the salt in your diet will kick edema into overdrive. Want to swell up even more? No gracias.
Beyond bloating and discomfort, too much sodium can cause serious health issues. Here’s how: Regular excessive sodium consumption causes your body to hold on to too much water, which in turn increases the pressure of blood pumping through your veins and arteries. This forces the body to work harder than it should, leading to high blood pressure — which can lead to stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, stomach cancer, osteoporosis and more.
The tricky part is that while backing away slowly from the salt shaker can help, sodium is already hiding in foods where you might not expect it.
SNEAKY PLACES WHERE SALT IS HIDING
Processed foods like potato chips, canned soups, and frozen dinners are ridiculously salty, but these high-sodium sources may surprise you:
- Bread: A slice of white bread has almost 150 mg of sodium. That may not seem like much at first. But when’s the last time you stopped at one slice of bread? A bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a roll at dinner — all that dough (and sodium) adds up.
- Condiments: What you put on your food has a huge effect on your sodium intake. A tablespoon of ketchup has 154 mg of sodium, a tablespoon of barbecue sauce has 175 mg, a tablespoon of relish has 164 mg and a tablespoon of soy sauce has a whopping 1,005 mg of sodium. Salad dressings are another culprit: Caesar has 178 mg, Italian 146 mg, and French dressing has 134 mg per tablespoon.
- Cereal: Your morning bowl of cereal may taste more sweet than salty, but some cereals contain a lot of salts. For instance, even cereal with a “healthier” reputation, corn flakes, has 204 mg of sodium in a one-cup single serving. Not terrible, right? Wrong. Have you ever measured how much cereal you pour into your bowl? Try it. Chances are, it’s more than one cup. Those individual servings of instant oatmeal and grits pack a big sodium punch, too. A packet of maple and brown sugar oatmeal has 218 mg of sodium, and a packet of butter-flavored instant grits contains 335 mg of sodium.
- Sweet drinks: You wouldn’t think that salt would be high on the list of ingredients for sugar-laden drinks, but sometimes it is. Sixteen ounces of hot cocoa mix prepared with water has 408 mg. And you’ve heard of electrolytes, right? They can help when you’re dehydrated? Well, sodium is a type of electrolyte — so some canned energy drinks have as much as 180 mg of sodium, and a bottle of a sports performance drink has nearly 240 mg of sodium.
THE BEST SOURCES OF SODIUM
Sodium is found in most foods — vegetables, milk, eggs, plain yogurt, poultry, fish, fruit, grains and unsalted nuts — which means you can get your fill from these healthier natural sources. Whenever possible, choose fresh over pre-prepared options and, when cooking, try not to be too heavy-handed in sprinkling on the salt. You’ll meet your daily requirement as long as you follow the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines.
TIPS FOR CUTTING BACK
Reducing your sodium intake is challenging but doable. These small changes can help:
- Cook at home. It’s important to try to eat more homemade meals since food cooked at home has less salt than processed foods or food cooked in a restaurant. Since you’re likely tired, loop in your partner on food preparation to make it easier.
- Be cautious with the salt shaker. When you do cook, be conservative with the salt you use; you can make your meals just as (if not more) tasty using spices, herbs, lemon, ginger or other salt-free seasonings. Reach for the salt with “iodized” on the label (not sea salt), which can help you reach your iodine requirements. And while you’re at it, keep your salt shaker in the cabinet, where it’s less accessible (that is, not on your dinner table).
- Opt for fresh over prepared snacks. Choose fruit, vegetables or low-fat yogurt for snacks instead of high-sodium treats like chips, cookies and cakes.
- Read the label. Remember, even foods that don’t taste salty can be filled with sodium. Take the time to check out the nutrition label to see just how much salt is in the product.