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Shaking down the truth about sodium in your diet

The headlines about salt couldn’t get more confusing. One day you’re told to shun it – the next, it’s actually good for you. So which is it? As with many nutrition topics, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Though sodium has often maintained a bad-guy reputation, it’s actually critical to health. It helps keep your heartbeat steady and maintains fluid balance in your body. If you work out, sodium is especially vital because it helps your body stay hydrated and prevents muscle cramping. You also lose some sodium through sweat, especially if you’re a “salty sweater” (if you see white residue on your workout clothes after they’re dry, you likely are).

But too much sodium can also boost blood pressure — and high blood pressure creates a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes — which is why you hear so many messages telling you to cut back. The current guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. That’s the amount in a teaspoon of salt. Most Americans consume more than 3,000 a day — and most of that comes from processed, packaged or restaurant food. Only about 10 percent of our salt intake actually comes from the saltshaker itself (the rest comes from naturally occurring sodium found in foods like milk and meat).

So if you want to be smart about salt, the best move is to cut back on processed stuff and dine out less. Consider that a serving of ramen noodles packs more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium and an order of beef and broccoli at a Chinese restaurant has more than 3,000, and it’s easy to see how manufacturers and restaurants often boost us to unhealthy levels.

By eating more fresh foods and cooking more meals yourself, you’ll have better control over how much sodium you get — and you can use salt to season already healthy foods, like roasted vegetables or baked sweet potatoes. 

But which salt should you stock? Here’s a rundown of some of the choices:

Iodized Salt This is basic table salt, the kind typically sold in a blue canister. It’s fortified with iodine, a mineral the body needs to make thyroid hormone.

Sea Salt Made by evaporating seawater, it’s sometimes billed as a healthier alternative to table salt. It actually contains the same amount of sodium per teaspoon and only tiny amounts of minerals like magnesium and calcium (coarse sea salt may have less sodium per teaspoon simply because the granules don’t pack as tightly into the measuring spoon). Foodies rave about the taste and texture of different varieties such as Black, Celtic and Hawaiian sea salts.

Kosher Salt With its larger, coarser granules, it’s a favorite among chefs because it’s easier to pick up and lends a nice look. Like coarse sea salt, it contains less sodium than regular salt per teaspoonful because of the size.

Seasoned Salt Regular table salt mixed with herbs like garlic, celery and onion, this contains slightly less sodium than regular salt.

Lite Salt It’s mixed half-and-half with potassium chloride, so it contains 50 percent less sodium than regular salt.