Did you know that a Chipotle tortilla has 50% more sodium than those Clif Bloks that taste like an excellent salted margarita? We all know the benefits of eating healthy – more veggies, no trans fat, more organic, less sweets, etc – but an often overlooked ingredient in our attempt to eat healthy is sodium. Even for athletes, a lower sodium diet can be very beneficial because our typical American diet contains 2-3 times the recommended amount of sodium.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical or nutritional expert. I’m just a guy trying to eat healthier and enjoy getting outside for my exercise. Please do your own research and consult a dietitian or doctor before making major changes to your diet.
Why Reduce Sodium?
The recommended sodium intake is 2500-3000 mg per day. Over the last several decades our consumption of sodium has greatly increased as processed and quick foods became a larger part of our diets. The American Heart Association says the following about sodium and it’s effects on our bodies:
Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor. For the estimated one in three Americans who will develop high blood pressure, a high-sodium diet may be to blame. In some people, sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body, creating an added burden on the heart. Too much sodium in the diet may also have other harmful health effects, including increased risk for stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease.
The problem is starting early in America: 97 percent of children and adolescents eat too much salt, putting them at greater risk for cardiovascular diseases as they get older.
By now, you’re probably thinking “Dude, I don’t have high blood pressure and I’m active”. But why not do all you can to make yourself even healthier and improve your fitness at the same time. You don’t have to give up Chipotle, pretzels, or deli meats. Simply eat less of those high sodium foods and more unprocessed foods.
We may think we are eating healthy by choosing Chipotle over McDonald’s, and that is partially true. Head over to the Chipoltle nutrition calculator and build your standard burrito. Chances are it will contain 2000mg of sodium or more with 670mg of that coming from the tortilla. Who would think a tortilla alone could contain that much sodium? That’s the scary part about sodium because it’s hidden in some strange places. The key is finding those hidden sources in your diet and finding lower sodium versions of that food.
But I’m an athlete – I need more sodium
Look at your sports drinks and gels. They don’t contain all that much sodium. My preferred products are Hammer Heed and Hammer Gel which contain a small amount of sodium plus potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium to give you a balanced electrolyte profile.
Gatorade drinks and Clif Bloks contain slightly more sodium. With any of these products you would only be consuming hundreds of milligrams during a multi-hour ride, not thousands. Those tasty margarita flavored Clif Bloks mentioned earlier have 3x the sodium of other bloks but still have only 420mg sodium. That’s less than your Chipotle tortilla and about the same as your Chipotle salsa.
Hammer Nutrition’s article on mistakes endurance athletes make has a good section on sodium.
Don’t consume extra sodium (salt) in the hopes that you’ll be “topping off your body stores” prior to the race. Since the average American already consumes approximately 6000 to 8000 mg per day (if not more), an amount well above the upper end recommended dose of 2300-2400 mg/day, there is absolutely no need to increase that amount in the days prior to the race. (Hint: Adopting a low-sodium diet will do wonders for both your health and athletic performance).
USA Triathlon also has an article about the benefits of a lower sodium diet and training.
However, if less sodium is consumed in the daily diet, it is much easier for the body to remain in balance. Sodium is still lost through sweat during training but it is easier to maintain these levels by implementing sodium supplementation strategies immediately before and during training and competition. The ideal scenario is to follow a lower sodium daily nutrition plan and implement a competition electrolyte protocol. After competition is finished, return to your lower sodium nutrition plan once again.
Simple ways to reduce sodium in your diet
- Focus your shopping on the edges of the supermarket
- Replace your morning boxed cereal with some tasty natural granola
- When buying canned vegetables or beans, buy ones with no salt added.
- Occasionally choose almonds for a snack instead of chips or pretzels
- Cut back on those canned soups (each can contains over 1000mg of sodium!)
- Say bye-bye to the ramen noodles and their 1500mg per bag
You can also check out the No Meat Athlete post on 16 sneaky sodium sources. It’s not just in cheap processed food, but in some of the higher end and “natural” products.
The key here is moderation just like everything else health related. You don’t have to cut out all sodium or even go on the low sodium diet. And by all means, don’t try the no salt bread. I tried that once and that stuff is nasty! Take a look at the labels of the food your are eating and try to find lower sodium alternatives. A great side benefit is that you will probably end up eating more fresh ingredients which will make you even healthier.