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Sodium and What Does it Mean to You
by Coach Crystal McCullough, MSN, CSCS
Sodium in and of itself is considered both a mineral AND an electrolyte and is essential for several functions in the human body. Some key roles are blood pressure regulation, maintaining fluid balance, and it also plays a supportive role in muscle and nerve function. The problem is that most people have a higher than suggested sodium (salt) intake from their diets and this can lead to health issues or exacerbate current health issues if it becomes chronic.
The human body is made up of about 60% water. Sodium and water have an interdependent relationship. To keep it simple, water follows sodium. Have you ever wondered why after eating Mexican food you feel all bloated and the next day you have gained 2 pounds? Did you really gain 2 pounds of fat? No. You actually had a high sodium meal and your body retained the water leading to excess water weight.
According to the FDA, the maximal safe limit of dietary sodium intake for healthy adults is 2,300 mg, but most adults should take in no more than 1,500, even if they are losing sodium through sweat. The average American takes in upwards of 3,400 mg per day, and this can lead to elevated blood pressure and other health issues. Sodium is found naturally in our foods like meats, shellfish, dairy, vegetables, and even our drinking water. It isn’t hard to reach that 1,500 mg/day just by eating whole foods. Sodium is actually added in the manufacturing process of most processed foods. Many Americans don’t consider their sodium intake when they make food choices because they are unaware of the effects too much sodium can have on their bodies. For some, they may not realize elevated blood pressure comes from the excess dietary intake of sodium while others, like my father who has congestive heart failure, must eat a low sodium diet in order to stay alive. Being aware of sodium content of our foods will help us to reduce water weight and regulate our body systems more effectively.
From here, let’s keep it simple and how it affects you as an athlete.
Sweating, or perspiration, is completely normal and is actually an essential bodily function that helps to control body temperature. When your body temperature rises like in exercising, sweat dampens the skin and cools it down as it evaporates. Sweat is made up of mostly water, BUT sweat is salt-based, so when you sweat, electrolytes like sodium and potassium are depleted and need to be restored. Drinking water during shorter workout sessions will prevent dehydration, but longer workout sessions especially in hot weather, require electrolyte-replenishing drinks.
We can also use sodium to manipulate our weight when we are cutting for a meet. It is done in conjunction with water manipulation. If you recall, the simplistic ‘water follows sodium’, if you increase your sodium a few days out while water loading, you will retain a little water and then once you drastically reduce your water and sodium intake, your body will continue to dump out extra water because of the delayed effect of the body’s regulatory system. This leads to quick water weight loss.
Sometimes, all it takes is making informed choices as consumers to get on the right path. Many of my nutrition clients struggle with sodium intake because they are thinking more on the lines of hitting their macros and not taking into consideration their sodium intake. When one of them adds 2-5 pounds on in a week and they say they were hitting their macros, my first question is ‘how often did you eat out?’ The usual reply is, “OH!”
Here are some helpful tips!
1. Fresh veggies are best! Frozen veggies are a good alternative because they don’t spoil as fast and are less expensive. Canned veggies have higher sodium content. If you choose to buy canned veggies, be sure to look for no salt added.
2. Limit how often you eat out. Even when we think we are making good food choices, sauces and added salt to make food taste good are hidden with loads of sodium.
3. Look at your food labels. You will be surprised at what has a lot of sodium in it. Frozen meals, salted nuts, canned foods like ravioli, and deli meat are all examples. Search for alternatives or lower sodium options.
4. When choosing sports drinks, be sure to look at the ratio of potassium to sodium and the sugar content. Drinks like Gatorade have loads of processed sugar in them. They taste good, yes, but beware. Great alternatives are NUUN tablets added to water or pure coconut water.
5. Drink water! A good rule of thumb is to try to reach upwards of a gallon a day as an athlete. Other recommendations may be needed for people with chronic illnesses who may need to restrict water intake.
I like to enjoy Mexican food every once in a while. Chips and salsa is one of my favorite all time snacks. But, just like with your macronutrients, be aware of how much sodium the foods you are choosing on a daily basis. Make informed decisions. Realize that when you eat higher sodium foods on a regular basis, you are going to feel bloated and carry around some excess water weight. I KNOW that the morning after I eat Mexican food, I am not going to like what the scale says. It is not uncommon to see an extra pound or so on the scale following a meal like that.
My hope is that by reading this article, you are more informed and are equipped now to make better food choices.
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About Crystal: Crystal is one of our Mash Elite coaches. She is a nationally ranked 72k USAPL Open and Masters powerlifter. Her best lifts are 147k squat, 88k bench, and 177k deadlift. She is an RN with a Masters degree in Nurse Education and has her CSCS. She was a CrossFit affiliate owner from 2015-2017 before relocating to Mash Headquarters. She is also the mom of 14 year old, Morgan. Follow her journey on Instagram @crystalmac_72