What Happens When You Eat Too Much Salt?


From the meals we order at restaurants to the pantry staples and packaged foods we buy in the grocery store, there's a lot of salt in our diet.

It's there for an obvious reason, of course. Salt helps provide flavor to bland food, as well as bring out other flavors that may be masked, such as sweetness, sourness and the ever-elusive umami. It's also a great preservative because it's cheap, non-toxic and tastes good.

But salt doesn't just affect your taste buds.

"The sodium found in salt is an important electrolyte needed for muscle contractions, nerve impulses and balancing hydration in the body," says Amanda Meadows, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist. "This makes sodium an essential mineral, but your body only needs so much of it. Many people eat more salt than the body needs and, over time, there are consequences to this."

What happens if you eat too much salt?
We're most familiar with how salty foods make us feel in the hours after eating them.

The immediate symptoms of eating too much salt include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Swollen feet or hands
  • Headache (in some cases)
  • Rise in blood pressure

These symptoms aren't particularly debilitating in the moment. Plus, since your kidneys are always helping balance the amount of sodium in your body, they don't last long.

But what happens in your body when you overwhelm your kidneys with salt isn't good.

"If your kidneys can't eliminate the salt you're taking in from your diet, sodium starts to build up in your body," explains Meadows. "And when you're holding on to more sodium, your body tries to dilute it with water — increasing your blood volume and causing you to retain fluid."

Hence the excessive thirst, bloating and blood pressure rise.

And if you're frequently consuming excess salt, this process strains your heart, blood vessels and kidneys.

"As your blood volume increases, your heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout your body," explains Meadows. "This then increases pressure in your arteries. What's more is that when the heart is pumping harder, it places pressure on the vessels in every organ, including the kidneys."

This is why, over time, eating too much salt comes with long-term health consequences, including:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Kidney stones

How much sodium per day is too much?
Limiting your intake starts with knowing how much salt is too much.

"The American Heart Association and the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day," says Meadows. "Visually, you can think about this in terms of how much salt can fit into a single teaspoon — that's the amount that you shouldn't exceed in a day."

According to the FDA, the average American consumes well beyond this — about 3,400 milligrams of salt per day, in fact — and many of us probably don't even realize it.

There's little danger of overcompensating. The AHA says the body needs only 500 milligrams a day to function properly, a limit few people come close to hitting. Also, according to the AHA, healthy kidneys are skilled at retaining the needed amount of sodium.

So, how did we get so far beyond what our body actually needs?

"Salt gives food flavor and our taste buds have come to expect it at this point," says Meadows. "When we remove salt, food just doesn't seem to taste as good. And no one wants tasteless food."

It's not just the desire for flavor that causes us to overdo it with salt.

More than 70% of our salt intake comes from sodium that's added during the food manufacturing or preparation process, so consuming too much salt is almost unavoidable if you primarily eat processed, packaged and prepared foods.

It's why the FDA released voluntary sodium-reduction goals for the food industry, asking manufacturers to take action toward solving our salt consumption dilemma. 

How to reduce your salt intake in just 5 steps
Yes, salt adds flavor. And, yes, it seems to be almost everywhere.

But now that you know how getting too much affects your health, here are five steps you can take to reduce your salt intake.

1. Know how much salt you're taking in
"I think the most important piece of this is about eating awareness," says Meadows. "It starts with knowing whether you're consuming excess salt and making a plan to cut back."

For instance, you can't change the amount of salt in a processed or prepared food item, but you can change your portion size of a salty food item you want to eat.

"It's also important to be aware of how much salt you're consuming at any given time," Meadows adds.

Even if you're taking in the recommended amount of salt, make sure it's spread evenly throughout your meals so that you're not overwhelming your kidneys with a day's worth of salt at once.

2. Read food labels and know what's considered low sodium
It's not realistic to prepare every meal that you eat yourself, so Meadows has advice for making salt-smart choices when it comes to packaged and processed foods.

"Always, always read the nutrition label and take note of the food's sodium content," Meadows recommends. "You want to be choosing foods that are low in sodium more often than not."

A low-sodium food is one that has no more than 140 milligrams of salt per serving.

And don't assume that a label claiming a food item is "reduced-sodium" makes it any healthier. This simply means that the item has 25% less sodium than what's normally present, which is often still too much. (We're looking at you, soy sauce.)

3. Prioritize eating whole, fresh and unprocessed foods
The best way to take control of how much salt you're getting is to eat unprocessed foods as often as you can. This means choosing whole fruits and vegetables and preparing fresh food yourself from scratch as much as possible.

"When it comes to vegetables, you can still use frozen options without worrying about salt," says Meadows. "Some canned veggies do have higher levels of salt, but simply checking nutrition labels can help you find a brand that's low-sodium."

And know that, while considered "fresh," the food from a restaurant or the grab-n-go section at a grocery store can sometimes still be packed with salt.

4. Find other ways to add flavor
It's undeniable that salt enhances the flavor of food, but it's not the only option.

"While cutting back on salt, experiment with flavoring your food in a different way, such as by adding lemon or lime juice, fresh or dried herbs and spices, and vinegars," Meadows recommends.

5. Approach salty foods with caution
Next time you're grocery shopping, beware of these commonly salty foods:

  • Frozen meals, including frozen pizzas
  • Canned and packaged soups
  • Snack foods, including chips,
  • Soy sauce
  • Salad dressings
  • Certain condiments, including hot sauce

But, take note: The message here isn't that you need to quit salt cold turkey. It's also not that you need to cut salty foods out of your diet completely.

This mentality could cause you to trade your favorite salty snacks for ones that are full of added sugars or saturated fats, two other common flavor enhancers that, in excess amounts, also increase the risk of health problems.

Instead, it's about creating awareness around your salt intake and taking steps toward prioritizing low-sodium foods and limiting high-sodium ones.

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