Monday, July 21, 2014

Dietary Sodium, Sugar, and Fat: The Minimum Everyone Should Know

Photo Credit: Jenny

Limiting sugar, fat, and/or sodium are popular ways to improve one's diet. However, these all must be consumed in order to stay alive and maintain proper physiological responses, growth, and development. Consuming too little could be equally (or even more) unhealthy than consuming too much.

Everyone needs to know that sodium is an absolutely essential element for humans. It is required to maintain your osmotic equilibrium, blood pH, and blood volume. Attempting to limit all sodium consumption in order to make your diet healthier is absurd; low sodium (hyponatremia) is dangerous and potentially fatal. The recommended daily intake ranges from 1500-2300 mg per day, though this range is only suggested and there is no specific number that is deemed ideal. However, it has been reported that the minimum requirement should be 500 mg per day, and the average American consumes ~3.4 g per day which is believed to be the reason for the high rates of hypertension in America.

For healthy individuals (unless you are predisposed to develop hypertension), the renin-angiotensin system in our bodies does an excellent job regulating our sodium levels, so don’t fret if you exceed the recommended daily intake of sodium every once in a while.

Here are some ways to eat less salt: Savor each mouthful of food, use other seasonings such as herbs, spices, hot peppers, lemon, vinegar or lime, read food labels and eat healthier snacks that are "unsalted." Your food does not even need salt more than 90% of the time. Taste it first before adding salt. 

In 2014, the World Health Organization recommended that the average person should consume 25 grams of sugar per day, though they did not specify which types of sugar. Sugar provides energy and should not be avoided completely since a myriad of healthy foods naturally contain sugar. For example:

1 medium banana contains 12.4 g sugar, or about half the total recommended daily intake
1 medium apple contains 18.9 g sugar
1 cup of grated carrots contains 5.2 g sugar

Just how in the world are we expected to consume the recommended 5-8 servings of fruits and veggies while limiting total sugar consumption to 25 g? There’s a big difference between the sugar in a pear and the sugar in a soda.

Sucrose (aka table sugar or saccharose) rapidly becomes two components when consumed: glucose and fructose. Excess glucose has significant effects on blood sugar levels and adverse health effects including tooth decay, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. So yes, limiting sucrose intake would be beneficial to one’s health.

High-fructose corn syrup is quite similar to sucrose since they both contain glucose and fructose. The primary difference is that in high-fructose corn syrup the glucose and fructose exist as their monosaccharide forms as opposed to their disaccharide form (sucrose).

But not all sugars are the same! I am baffled when people say fruits are unhealthy because of their high sugar content. Fruits are unhealthy?! Let’s set the record straight, for most fruits and veggies the main sugar component is fructose, which is chemically different than glucose. Fructose has a much lower glycemic index compared to glucose (so it won’t spike blood sugar levels) and does not signal the production of insulin in the pancreas. Unless you consume an extreme excess of fruit (or if you're diabetic), it should be common knowledge that the health benefits of fruits and veggies far outweigh the risks associated with their sugar content.

We all need fats. Fat is a necessary component in all the cells that make up our body. Like anything, TOO MUCH is bad, but eliminating fat from your diet is unhealthy unless specifically ordered to do so by your doctor. The CDC suggests fats should account for 20-35% of total calories for the average adult. Keep in mind that 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories. So if you consume a 2000 calorie diet, a normal intake of fat would be 400-700 fat calories (or 44-77 grams of fat). If you want to be healthier, limit the intake of saturated fat and replace with unsaturated fats commonly found in some cooking oils, avocados, and whole grains.

For some healthier options for sugar, sodium and fat check out "Eat THESE not THOSE." Have anything to add or share? Let us know in the comments section!

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