March 13th, 2009
11:22 AM ET

Too much salt can be bitter for your health

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

If you're like me, going to the movies just isn't the same without a tub of popcorn. Although I don't douse it with butter, I do admit to shaking just a little salt on my bucket of munchies before entering the theater. It's that salty crunchiness that satisfies my movie-loving soul. It just takes the edge off while I moon over Daniel Craig.

The problem is, even that little shake could put me way over the number of milligrams of salt each of us needs every day. According to the American Heart Association, most Americans should limit their sodium intake to no more than 2,400 milligrams or 6 grams a day. That's about one and a half teaspoons a day. ONE AND A HALF TEASPOONS A DAY! Break out your measuring spoons. That's not much, considering most foods we eat, including that popcorn, are loaded with salt.

Although sodium plays an important role in regulating body fluids and blood pressure, most of us consume way more salt than our bodies need. And because of our fast-paced lives, a lot of those quick meals we throw in the microwave are the biggest sodium culprits. Processed foods, for example certain lunch meats and TV dinners, are brimming with salt, some over 1,000 milligrams a meal. That's almost half your salt intake for the day. In fact, many of the frozen diet meals we eat have lots of salt, because, according to health experts such as Jane Delgado from the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, "It's an inexpensive way to add flavor." She says better to season your food with spices, even lemon juice to keep it tasty. And look at nutrition labels

Expecting a baby? Watch your sodium. Most pregnant women should talk to their doctors about their salt intake, especially in the first three months of pregnancy, when the fetus is beginning to develop. Dropping sodium during pregnancy can cause problems for mom and her child, by disrupting the body's fluid balance. Edema, or excess water retention, that occurs during pregnancy is usually not harmful, unless the mother has high blood pressure But it can get out of hand. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ballooned into a 200-plus pound mass of happy mama. Because of edema I took on a lot of water weight, but my blood pressure remained normal. In my ninth month all I could wear were my husband's flip flops and a huge muumuu. I was miserable. My OB/GYN advised me to limit my salt, because it causes cells to retain water. I tried, but I still grew. Two days after I gave birth to my baby girl, I had dropped 45 pounds. Needless to say, a good 75 percent of that was water weight.

So it's no surprise when it comes to salt, most doctors agree less is better. Although the debate on how much salt is needed continues, health experts agree a little goes a long way. Too much salt has been shown to lead to high blood pressure which can cause heart disease and stroke. For those with hypertension, certain physicians say lowering sodium intake to 1,800 milligrams would probably be healthier.

So the next time you're running to catch a flick and start to reach for the shaker at the concession stand , go easy. Think about how much salt you're consuming.

Do you watch your salt? How do you limit your salt intake?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.