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Sodium and Fat: The Dietary Roles Each Play

What does it mean to eat a “heart-healthy” diet? This isn’t an easy question to answer, particularly when you consider the vital roles played by sodium and fat. It might be tempting to simply eliminate both from your menu. But there’s a better way to eat healthy. To help you get there, let’s take a closer look at the dietary roles played by salt and fat, then use that information to build better meals.

Too Much Sodium

Our bodies need sodium for normal muscle and nerve functions, and to stay in balance. Eating too much of it, however, can wreak havoc on your health. Foods high in salt can cause you to retain excess water and make your organs work harder. This, in turn, increases your risk for high blood pressure (hypertension), which can lead to heart disease.

So, how much salt should you eat? This may be difficult to hear, but the American Heart Association says anything more than 1,500 milligrams a day (about two-thirds of a teaspoon) is too much. The typical U.S. diet includes more than double that amount. One of the easiest ways to cut back is to avoid packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. But also know that some foods naturally contain sodium while others have added salt. Nutrition labels can help you identify foods lower in sodium.

High-sodium foods to limit or avoid include:

  • Pizza

  • Sausage and bacon

  • Lunch meats

  • Hot dogs

  • Chips/packaged snacks

  • Condiments

You also can cut your consumption by making fruits and vegetables a regular part of your meals, as they’re naturally low in salt and full of fiber. They also contain potassium, which can counter the effects of sodium and lower blood pressure. Another helpful tip is to rinse and drain canned vegetables to get rid of excess salt.

Some Fats Are Healthier Than Others

Fat is one of three key macronutrients we need. It provides energy, supports cell growth and helps us absorb certain vitamins. Key types of fat are:

  • Saturated fats can be found in butter, lard and coconut and palm oils as well as animal products (meats, poultry and dairy).

  • Trans fat can be identified as “hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list of many processed foods. Trans fat should be avoided as it can increase our risk for heart disease. In 2015, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) determined partially hydrogenated oils are no longer generally recognized as safe.

  • Unsaturated fats are considered heart-healthy fats. There are two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Sources include salmon, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, avocado, nuts and olive oil.

Read Labels, Buy Fresh

Unsaturated fats offer more heart-protective benefits than saturated fats, which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, according to studies. When that happens, the risk for heart disease and stroke also increases. On the other hand, unsaturated fats help increase HDL (healthy) cholesterol, lowering risk of heart disease. In general, the goal is to have 20 percent to 35 percent of your total daily calories come from healthy fats and fewer than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fats. So, read those nutrition labels to figure out which foods fit best in your heart-healthy diet.

Strive for balance with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean-protein sources. Choose heart-healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado. Cook at home and include more plant-based meals. And remember that you can cut back on the salt, without giving up flavor. Jazz up your dishes with things like rosemary, thyme, cinnamon and turmeric. You can be generous with those spices and herbs without worrying about the health problems that come with salt.


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