Thursday, September 3, 2009

How Do I Count Sodium Intake to Meet the Daily Value?

I read the daily value for sodium is 2400 milligrams, but how do I count this up when all foods (like fruits and vegetables) don't have labels on them--let alone eating out in restaurants. Also, is this a minimum or a maximum or an average? James P.

Dear James,

The daily value for sodium is actually more of a maximum suggestion. This is different from most of the nutrient recommendations because the average American is known for eating too much--more than 4000 milligrams per day, and sometimes as much as 7,000 or 8,000 milligrams per day! We only need about 500 milligrams per day for proper body functioning, but public health advocates do want to be certain that people don't start buying everything "low sodium" in an effort to eat minimally, lest they end up falling short of their needs. The daily value is a great number to shoot for without going crazy trying to find low sodium versions of everything, and being able to enjoy a hot dog once in a while.

Rather than counting everything you eat (which is exhausting by the middle of the day, let alone trying to continue monitoring your intake over a long period of time) I suggest reading labels on canned, frozen, and other processed foods and avoiding anything with over about 500 milligrams per serving. Be sure to read what the label calls a serving size: if you eat a can of soup that has 400 milligrams per serving, you can be pretty sure they call a serving "1/2 can", meaning you will be consuming 800 milligrams!

Canned soups are usually very high sodium (with some good lower sodium alternatives right on the next shelf), as well as smoked meats and lunch meats (like ham and hot dogs), and the typical TV dinner (there are some great lower sodium brands available). Fast food meals are also often approaching 1000 milligrams in a sandwich: all fast food establishments will provide you with their complete nutritional information, so check out the sodium content of the foods you usually choose. Some of the websites even have a 'meal builder' so you can add fries and desserts to your burger and see what the grand total is!

Many other foods--canned vegetables, breads, cereals, and dairy products--may have 150-250 milligrams per serving. If you have a few servings of these per day they can add up, but won't exceed thousands of milligrams a day. Also balancing out your diet are very low sodium foods, like fruits, juice, fresh vegetables, rice, and chicken. I wouldn't bother to count these to add up a daily total more than once or twice, just to give yourself a good idea of how you generally eat.

By limiting each meal to less than 700 milligrams, you'll total a daily sodium intake below 2100 milligrams (saving any highly salty snacks) without having to count every bite you take.

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