Just a few hundred years ago, dieting was nearly nonexistent. Those who wished to shed a few pounds simply reduced their intake of food. Today, however, the prospective dieter is flooded with diet plans, most with flashy sounding names. Lost in the midst of all these complicated nutritional plans is a true understanding of why a particular diet is important.

The lowdown on the low-sodium diet

Take for example, the low-sodium diet. Sodium is a nutrient found in table salt and many other foods. Most men consume far too much sodium, usually because we add too much table salt to our food. And although many of us recognize that sodium is “bad” for us, very few truly understand the reasons why — and even fewer actually take measures to suck the salt from our diets.

So why exactly do men need to worry about salt? And why should we practice a low-sodium diet?

The good and bad of sodium

Despite the negative press on salt, the reality is that the human body needs some sodium to function properly. What exactly does it do for you? For starters, sodium helps maintain the balance of fluids in our bodies, it helps transmit nerve impulses and it also influences muscle contractions.

By and large, the kidney functions to control sodium. If sodium levels are low, the kidneys retain sodium. If sodium levels are high, the kidneys excrete excess sodium in the urine. But if, for some reason, the kidneys aren’t working properly, or if we ingest too much salt, sodium begins to accumulate in the blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, blood volume increases and, with it, so does blood pressure.

It is this increase in blood pressure that makes sodium so dangerous, being a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the first and third leading killers in the U.S. With that in mind, isn’t it about time you thought about a low-sodium diet?

How much sodium do you really need?

The Institute of Medicine recommends the following adequate intakes for adults per day:

— 1,500 mg for people aged 9 to 50

— 1,300 mg for adults aged 51 to 70

— 1,200 mg for seniors over 70 years of age.

Meanwhile, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends upper limits that adults should not exceed:

— 2,300 mg for the healthy adult

— 1,500 mg of sodium a day if you have high blood pressure, kidney disease or diabetes; are black; or are middle-aged or older.

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Dangerous levels

Despite having fairly clear guidelines as to how much sodium we should consume, the simple fact is that we consume way too much. A 2005-2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey suggested that the average American intake of sodium was 3,436 mg/day, nearly double the recommended intake level. Further research by Statistics Canada shows that Canadian men take in far more sodium than women. In fact, among the 14 to 70 age group, Canadian males exceeded the upper recommended limit of 2,300 mg/day, consuming 4,000 mg/day.

You can cut it out

Because sodium is found in most foods, avoiding sodium through careful food selection isn’t easy. The easiest way is to simply stop adding extra salt to your food. Just one tablespoon of salt contains over 2,000 mg of sodium. Your next best bet is to remove salt from pre-salted foods. That means scraping the salt off of pretzels or crackers.

Aside from that, it’s up to you to read the labels and pick your foods wisely. Just remember to try to stay within the sodium intake ranges listed above. Help yourself by avoiding processed or prepackaged foods, especially canned soups or lunch meats. Instead, make your own soup or eat fresh.

Lastly, you can try spicing your food using a salt alternative like magnesium chloride or potassium chloride. These will provide a similar — but not identical — flavor.

The spice of life

Cutting out salt is no easy task. After all, some foods simply aren’t meant for eating without a little sprinkle of salt (corn on the cob comes to mind). But recognize that sodium levels add up. A pinch of salt here, a dash of salt there, and very soon your sodium levels are through the roof. Just remember that too much salt can have dangerous consequences, so stay smart and stay healthy: Cut out the salt.