May 18, 2021 Is Salt Sabotaging Your Health?

Here’s what it does to the body and how you can cut back.

“Salt is all over the place in our diets—sometimes in obvious places like a salt shaker, and other times hidden in the food we consume,” says Elie Chakhtoura, MD, Director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Clara Maass Medical Center and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.* “The total amount of sodium we need is less than 500 milligrams a day, but most Americans consume north of 3,200 milligrams daily.”

That level of sodium can, over time, have bad effects on the body. “It affects the brain, releasing hormones and reactive oxygen radicals that can increase blood pressure,”

Dr. Chakhtoura explains. “Salt can also stress the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s response to dangerous situations, so you have a kind of ‘fight or flight’ reaction.”

In addition, excess salt leads to fluid retention. “Therefore, the volume of fluid in the blood vessels is increased and the heart has to work harder to pump it,” he says. “The excess force can cause high blood pressure and stiffening of the blood vessels. This will ultimately lead to harmful effects on the heart and kidneys.”

Sodium in Hiding

To cut back on salt, first realize that most of what you get comes from unexpected places, Dr. Chakhtoura says. “To the extent possible, avoid or minimize processed foods,” he says. “The worst offenders are canned soup, rice and noodle mixes, ketchup, mustard and bottled salad dressings.

“What I tell patients who are trying to cut down on salt is to read the label,” he continues. “You could already be at a third of your recommended daily amount of salt by the time you finish your bowl of breakfast cereal.” Deli meat, smoked meats and cured meats are all loaded with salt, as is cheese, he adds.

Eating out is also a potential hazard, Dr. Chakhtoura says. “Restaurant food tastes good because it’s high in both salt and fat, and that’s especially true of fastfood places. Cutting back on eating out can be a major step in decreasing your salt intake. If you go to a restaurant or diner regularly, ask them if they can accommodate you by cutting back on the amount of salt in your meal.”

Over time, perhaps in just a few weeks, the craving for salt will go away, “You will get used to spicing your food in other ways,” Dr. Chakhtoura says. “We don’t need to be a prisoner of our diet; a bit of cheese with wine is not a big deal. Just use insight and good judgment. Also, exercise for 150 minutes over the course of a week to keep your blood vessels and blood pressure in good order.”

Flavor Alternatives: 6 Salt Swaps

“Incorporate a variety of flavors into your diet and you may find yourself craving these instead of salt,” says Heather Barraco, MS, RDN, CDCES, Clinical Nutrition Manager at Clara Maass Medical Center.

  1. Black pepper: especially if freshly ground.
  2. Hot spices: cayenne pepper, jalapeños and roasted chipotle peppers.
  3. Garlic: fresh or powdered.
  4. Basil: works very well with tomato, pasta dishes, garlic, onion and olive oil.
  5. Citrus: fresh juice and/or zest of a lime, orange, lemon, grapefruit or other citrus fruit.
  6. Vinegars: all types of vinegar (cider, white wine, red wine, balsamic, rice or flavored) in dressings or drizzled on veggies or fruit.

Whoever your heart beats for, our hearts beat for you. To connect with a top cardiovascular specialist at RWJBarnabas Health, call 888.724.7123 or visit

*Elie Chakhtoura, MD, is affiliated with Clara Maass Medical Center, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and Saint Barnabas Medical Center.