Why is a high salt diet so bad for you?

March 15, 2018 Swedish Blogger


  • Excess sodium can increase blood pressure and risk for heart disease and stroke
  • Because high blood pressure may not have overt symptoms, regular blood pressure monitoring is important 
  • Your salt taste buds are the ONLY taste buds that can adapt or change 

Medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and risk for heart disease and stroke, and that together, heart disease and stroke kill more Americans each year than any other cause. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. 

What salt does to your system

Kailee Leverso, Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator at Swedish, describes what salt does to our systems:  “Salt (sodium chloride or NaCl), when dissolved in the stomach, breaks down into its separate electrolyte forms – sodium and chloride. If a high amount of sodium is consumed, water will follow and also enter the bloodstream to try to dilute the salt content in the blood. This higher water concentration can result in elevated blood pressure.” 

Why blood pressure is taken at every doctor’s visit 

Blood Pressure (BP) is taken at every visit to your doctor because it can change over time. Multiple readings over time help your doctor see trends in BP information. It could be elevated, for example, because you were running late to your appointment and rushing or if you were feeling more stressed that day. A high salt meal the night before could also raise BP the next day as well.

High blood pressure is relative

High blood pressure is different depending on the individual, and it varies over time and with age. The American Heart Association offers the guidelines below, and your doctor can explain what your blood pressure numbers mean. The National Stroke Association also cites high blood pressure as one of the leading medical risks factors associated with strokes.

American Heart Association Blood Pressure Categories


Blood Pressure Category

Systolic mm Hg (Upper Number)

Diastolic mm Hg (Lower Number)


Less than 120


Less than 80




Less than 80

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 1




High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 2

140 or higher


90 or higher

Hypertensive Crisis (Hypertension) Stage 3 (Consult your doctor immediately)

Higher than 180


Higher than 120


High BP usually doesn’t have symptoms unless it is severely elevated, in which case people might experience headaches, fatigue, and vision changes. Over time, high BP can put stress on your blood vessels and cause damage to them, especially to the small more delicate capillaries in the eyes, kidneys and heart. Because there aren’t usually any overt symptoms, regular monitoring is important to see whether you’re at risk for hypertension or its precursors. In other words, keeping track of your blood pressure is one of the reasons you should be getting regular checkups. Ask your doctor if you should monitor your blood pressure at home.

Recommended daily salt (sodium) levels 

Leverso says, “The minimum recommended amount of sodium needed per day is 1,500 mg and an individual should aim not to exceed an amount of 2,400 mg. But due to the excessive amounts in processed, canned, and frozen foods, the average American consumes 5,000-6,000 mg per day!” 

Tips and tricks for lowering salt intake

  • Keep the salt shaker away from the table
  • Select low sodium foods more often: fresh or frozen no-salt vegetables, fresh or frozen fruit, olive oil, skinless poultry, lean cuts of fresh meat, fresh or frozen fish and shellfish, plain whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, etc.)
  • Focus on salt-free flavorings when cooking (such as paprika, lemon juice, dill, etc.)
  • Read labels to look for sodium in the ingredients list or on the nutrition label
  • Look for low-sodium or no-salt canned foods – rinse canned foods before using
  • Know about label claims:  ‘Sodium Free & Salt Free’ (< 5 mg of sodium/serving), ‘Low Sodium’ (< 140 mg/serving), ‘Healthy’ (< 480 mg sodium) versus ‘Lightly salted,’ ‘Light in Sodium,’ and ‘Reduced or Less Sodium,’ all of which are in comparison to the original version and are not specific
  • Aim for no more than about 500-600 mg of sodium in a meal

Consider a low salt eating plan

There are many low-salt eating plans and the “DASH” (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan is but one of many. The American Diabetes Association also offers recommendations for foods and meal planning because people with type 2 diabetes have more than two times the risk for developing heart disease. Increase in the risk of stroke is also tied to high blood pressure. 

Leverso says, “I like working with patients to lower salt intake because it is something that can help lower blood pressure and fluid retention in most people. Interestingly, our salt taste buds are the only taste buds that can adapt or change over time – so if we reduce our intake, our taste buds will adapt and then prefer that salt level in food. What may have been good before now tastes too salty. Our other taste buds don’t do that.”

Learn how to make other healthy substitutions to the way you cook without sacrificing flavor. Reducing sodium intake is an excellent start to eating well, and you can find a Swedish doctor who can help you develop a personalized nutrition plan.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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