It's pretty straightforward: consuming too much salt causes the body's cells to have an imbalance of electrolytes and water. The amount of sodium recommended for healthy adults is less then 2,300 mg per day. If you are trying to watch your sodium intake you should try and keep salt to less then 500 mg per meal. Most people know that if you have high blood pressure, it is important to decrease salt intake in the diet. If your blood pressure is normal it is not as critical to watch your salt intake but too much salt in any diet is unhealthy. The table salt that is in most foods is actually a combination of two elements sodium and chloride. These two elements are known as electrolytes and are needed by the body for cellular function. For this reason, it is important to consume some sodium containing foods but you don't necessarily need to add salt to foods. One of sodium's biggest roles at the cellular level is maintaining hydration. When too much sodium is consumed, it increases the body's ability to store fluids, which is why people with high blood pressure should keep their sodium intake to a minimum.
People that have normal blood pressure, get enough salt in their diets to keep cells in balance. If a healthy person has a meal that contains a great deal of salt, they could feel swollen or bloated due to the increase water retention. However, the increase in fluid retention will slowly decrease as the kidneys work hard to restore the body back to a balanced state. It is never suggested to eat a very high sodium diet because of the extra stress put on the body. Every once in a while a high salt meal is fine.
For the typical American, their diets are usually very high in sodium due to the high amount of processed foods eaten. In foods that are highly refined or processed, one of the main ingredients to make foods shelf stable is salt. Think about how meats were kept prior to refrigeration, they were cured by crusting the meat in salt. The salt pulls all of the moisture from the meat, leaving a dry environment where bacteria are unable to grow. Salt is used when packaging and making canned foods, deli meats, processed meats and prepackaged meals to allow them to keep longer. The best way to know how much sodium is in foods you eat is to read the food label.
There are some people who benefit from an increase in sodium in their diet. They are people who exercise for longer then 60 minutes and their sweat leaves a salty film on their body. These people are known as salt sweaters and require more sodium in their diets to replace what sweating lost. This is the whole reason behind the invention of Gatorade, to replace electrolytes lost during exercise. For healthy, active individuals paying attention to salt intake is important to keep the body functioning at its optimal level.
Grete R. Hornstrom is a Clinical Dietitian who is currently specializing in pediatric care. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Physical Education with a concentration in Exercise Science from Kent State University, a Master of Arts in Wellness Management from Ball State University, and a Master of Science in Dietetics from Ball State University. She has worked with overweight children and adults, recreational and elite athletes, chronically ill children, and every day people on developing nutrition plans and healthy lifestyle changes. In addition she has worked with recreational teams, high school teams, and college teams educating them on the importance of nutrition and performance. She has completed one marathon and three half marathons in the last two years. Her newest sport of choice is cycling.