Is Too Much Salt in Our Diet Really the Problem?

Salt shaker

Too Much Salt ?

We often hear in the media that we consume too much salt and that high sodium intake is linked to a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure (also called hypertension) and heart disease. High sodium intake, we are also often told, has nothing to do with the amount of salt we add to our food at the table or in cooking and this is true. Approximately 75% of the sodium in most North American diets comes from the salt already in processed or restaurant food.

The Debate over Too Much Salt

Throughout this past year, the American Journal of Hypertension published both sides of the salt debate; both supporting the benefits of reducing salt in the diet and evidence that doing so, fails to save lives. All of these articles discuss sodium as the culprit, without really looking at the bigger picture. It is not just the amount of sodium in the diet that is the issue, but the ratio of sodium to potassium in our diets.

Sodium to Potassium Ratio

From a blood pressure point of view, is not just the amount of total sodium one eats that is the issue, but the sodium to potassium ratio; with the literature supporting that a 1:2 ratio is ideal.

A 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine called Sodium and Potassium Intake and Mortality among US Adults concluded that “a higher sodium-potassium ratio is associated with significantly increased risk of CVD and all-cause mortality.” Simply put, eating more than a 1:2 ratio of sodium to potassium is the real risk factor, not just the total amount of salt in the diet.

It was not until 2004 that the group responsible for establishing Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), even established adequate intake (AI) levels for potassium! At that time, the Adequate Intake (AI) of Potassium was set at 4,700 milligrams a day which is slightly above double the recommended daily sodium limit (2,300 milligrams). Again, 1:2 sodium to potassium ratio.

So How much Sodium and Potassium are we Eating?

Population studies from the US indicates that the average adult consumes 3,436 mg of sodium per day (150% of the recommended daily limit of 2300 mg) and the average daily intake of potassium is 2,790 mg; just 60 % of the recommended daily amount. Canadian data varies by region and province, but seems to indicate that we too, eat too much sodium and not enough potassium. The real issue, it seems, is not just that we eat too much salt (50% more than recommended) but that we eat almost half the amount of potassium as we should.

Where Do We Find Potassium?

Vegetables, fruits, legumes (such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, etc.), nuts and seeds, and whole wheat and oats and other grains (such as quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth) are all very good sources of potassium. Even better, these foods are also naturally low in sodium.

Some Final Thoughts

Since it has been established that a 1:2 sodium to potassium ratio is ideal for health, the current media focus on reducing the amount of sodium in packaged foods or restaurant foods is ultimately going to fail; because the issue is not just to reduce sodium intake, but to also increase potassium intake.

The best general nutrition recommendation would be to eat as little processed foods as possible while increasing intake of foods high in potassium, such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.

How Nutrition to You can Help

Our mobile Registered Dietitian can not only assess your dietary intake for adequate potassium intake and make suggestions of how you can improve your sodium to potassium ratio, but can even help go through your pantry and fridge with you, to determine just how much sodium is in the prepared or processed foods you are eating.  Why not give Nutrition to You a call and see how our mobile Registered Dietitian can help?  Click on the “Contact Us” tab above to send us an email or write us at [email protected] to find out more!


Institute of Medicine. Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States. National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2010.

Coxson PG, Cook NR, Joffres M, et al. Mortality benefits from US population-wide reduction in sodium consumption: projections from 3 modeling approaches. Hypertension 2013;61:564–570.

American Journal of Hypertension

Yang Q, Liu T, Kuklina EV, et al. Sodium and Potassium Intake and Mortality Among US Adults: Prospective Data From the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(13):1183-1191.