It's no secret that sodium makes your food taste good -- food marketers actually rely on your hard-wired craving for salty fare to make processed and fast foods as irresistible as possible. Some of the sodium in your diet actually promotes good health, and you need a small amount of salt each day to stay healthy. Getting too much sodium, though, causes side effects, which can include water weight gain and bloating.
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Sodium and Your Body
You need a small amount of sodium each day to maintain your health. As a water-soluble electrolyte, sodium plays a role in fluid retention. That's a good thing, as long as you're taking in a moderate amount of sodium daily, since you need some fluid retention to maintain a healthy blood pressure. Without enough sodium, you risk developing low blood pressure, which might make you feel fatigued or lightheaded. Sodium is also key for nerve health, and its one of the key electrolytes involved in sending the small electrical impulses your nerves use to communicate. Along with potassium, sodium supports brain function through its effect on nerves and also helps your nerves communicate with your muscle fibers. Finally, sodium helps you absorb certain nutrients, including the amino acids used to make protein.
The Potential for Water Weight Gain and Bloating
While a moderate amount of sodium in your diet allows you to retain essential water, getting too much sodium increases your water retention, which can trigger weight gain and bloating. In fact, an extra 400 milligrams of sodium -- the equivalent to 1 gram of table salt -- is enough to trigger 2 pounds' worth of water retention. You'd get that much sodium from an order of large fries at a fast food restaurant. If you're eating salty fare throughout the day, that weight gain could really add up. A single-serving frozen lasagne has 639 milligrams of sodium, or enough for about 3 pounds of water weight gain. You'll notice physical bloating and might even sense your fingers and feet swelling from the excess fluid.
This weight gain is just temporary, though -- as your sodium and fluid levels stabilize, you'll lose the excess water weight.
Salty Foods and Gaining Weight
While salt itself won't make you gain body fat, salty foods definitely can. Many processed foods aren't just high in salt, but they're also loaded with calories and fat. A fast-food double cheeseburger and fries loaded with 1,500 milligrams of sodium also contains a whopping 865 calories -- and that's without a sugary soft drink on the side. If you're eating even one double cheeseburger and fries in addition to your regular diet once a week, you'll get enough extra calories to gain almost 13 pounds of fat over the course of a year. And unlike water weight, which will go away quickly when you adjust your diet, 13 pounds of fat will take weeks -- or even months -- to lose.
Keeping Your Sodium Intake Low
Avoid sodium-induced water weight gain by sticking to a moderate sodium intake. Ideally, you should aim for 1,500 milligrams daily and get a maximum of 2,300 milligrams each day. That generally means avoiding packaged foods and making your meals at home, where you can control your sodium intake. Instead of salty canned soups, for instance, make your own chicken or vegetable soups with low-sodium broth. And instead of frozen entrees, make a large batch of a healthy casserole or chili, which you can store in individual portions for ready-to-go meals. If you need to buy prepared foods -- like bread or dairy products -- check the nutrition label so that you can select the lowest-sodium option.