Sodium Vs Salt: What’s The Difference Between The Two?

There are certain nutritional things that most of us feel like we understand until we are actually pressed to explain the concept to others. 

One common example of this phenomenon is understanding the difference between sodium vs salt.

In other words, is sodium salt? Is sodium chloride salt? What’s the difference between sodium vs salt? And, why is sodium bad?

In this article, we will discuss the differences between sodium vs salt and discuss whether sodium in food is bad for you and how much sodium from food you should be getting in your diet.

We will look at: 

  • What Is the Difference Between Salt And Sodium?
  • Why Is Sodium Bad for You?
  • Should I Limit Salt In My Diet?

Let’s get started!

NaCl written in salt.

What Is the Difference Between Salt And Sodium?

So, is sodium salt? Is sodium chloride salt?

When most people think of salt, they are thinking of table salt, which has the chemical formula NaCl.

This is known as sodium chloride, as the chemical symbol for sodium is Na, and the chemical symbol for chlorine is Cl.

When sodium and chloride form a bond, the molecule sodium chloride is formed. This is the common form of salt used to season food and other cooking applications.

Sodium chloride, or table salt, is composed of about 40% sodium and 60% chloride by weight.

That not only adds a salty flavor to food, but it also helps preserve and stabilize food because bacteria are unable to thrive in the presence of a high amount of salt. 

When people are considering the differences between sodium vs salt, the terms are generally used interchangeably. In other words, sodium in food refers to the sodium chloride salt, which is the same salt you would use in a salt shaker.

A salt shaker.

However, there is technically a difference between salt vs sodium from a chemistry or chemical perspective.

Sodium is a particular element found on the periodic table (element 11), again with the chemical symbol of Na.

Salt is a broader term than just the sodium chloride salt we think about when considering sodium in food or salt in the diet.

In chemistry or chemical applications, a salt is a crystalline structure that precipitates as a solid out of a liquid solution when different solutes are dissolved in solvents.

Essentially, a salt is an ionic compound formed when two oppositely charged molecules bond together and form a solid.

You can have a salt that is formed from chemicals other than sodium and chlorine.

For example, potassium salt is potassium chloride. This is a crystallized molecule that is formed when potassium bonds with chlorine atoms.

Thus, for the purposes of distinguishing between sodium vs salt in this discussion, there are actual technical differences between a salt vs sodium in chemistry, but considering sodium and salt in the diet, the two words are used interchangeably.

A bowl and scoop of salt.

Why Is Sodium Bad for You?

We have a tendency to use black-and-white thinking regarding whether certain food groups or nutrients are “good” or “bad“ for us.

For example, people who are proponents of low-carb diets often take the stance that “carbs are bad for you,“ while others who prefer a low-fat diet or vegan style eating pattern suggest that saturated fat is “bad for you.“

With the exception of a handful of certain nutrients (or antinutrients in this case) such as trans fats, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and sweeteners, and chemical “food ingredients,” most foods are nutrients that are demonized as being “bad for you” or lauded as being “good for you” actually lie somewhere in the middle.

Sodium is certainly an example of this latter category.

While many people ask the basic question, “Why is sodium bad for you?“the truth is that your body needs sodium to function. 

In fact, extremely low levels of sodium, a condition termed hyponatremia, can lead to serious health consequences such as seizure, coma, and even death.

Salt crystals.

According to Harvard Health, the average adult’s body contains 250 grams of sodium, which is about the amount of salt in three or four small saltshakers. 

This may sound like a lot of sodium, but it’s actually less than 9 ounces overall.

Because sodium is distributed throughout the body, particularly in fluids like blood, sweat, urine, tears, and semen, the actual sodium concentration in the body is quite low, and we do not need to consume a lot of sodium in the diet to maintain proper salt levels.

Moreover, studies have found that when sodium intake is low, the body employs mechanisms to conserve sodium by reducing the sodium that is excreted through urine (and reducing total urine output) and decreasing the sodium concentration in sweat (and reducing total sweat volume).

Sodium is essential for many physiological processes. It functions as an electrolyte in the body, which means that it loses an electron and exists as a charged particle, known as an ion, called Na+.

As an electrolyte, sodium serves numerous vital roles, such as helping to regulate fluid balance in the body, regulating blood pressure, helping conduct nerve impulses, allowing for muscle contraction, ensuring the heart can continue to beat, and more.

Pink salt.

Sodium is also the major mineral in plasma, which is the liquid component of blood, as well as interstitial fluid, which is the liquid that fills and surrounds cells.

Furthermore, we lose sodium through urine and sweat so it is imperative that your diet contains sodium to maintain proper sodium balance and ensure sodium levels are adequate to support all of the key roles of sodium in the body.

Thus, it is not correct to assume that sodium is inherently bad for you or that foods with sodium should be unilaterally eliminated from the diet. Instead, what is problematic is when your diet contains too much sodium.

The reality is that the vast majority of Americans and those following a typical Western diet consume far too much sodium and well above the established daily limits of dietary sodium for optimal health.

In fact, according to Harvard Health, the average American today consumes about 55% more sodium than in 1980, and excess sodium intake is said to be responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in America each year. 

This is about three times more than the fatality rate of prostate cancer, one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

Salty foods surrounding the word salt in scrabble letters.

Should I Limit Salt In My Diet?

Again, although your body does need some sodium, the typical American diet is extremely high in sodium.

For example, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults limit their daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, which is equal to one teaspoon of table salt.

However, according to research, Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. This is nearly 150% of the daily sodium recommendations.

Furthermore, 97% of males aged 19-59 are exceeding the recommended intake for their age. 

Data shows men aged 19-30 are consuming an average of 4,727 mg while those 31-59 consume 4,172 mg on average, which is about twice the recommended limit. 

Women are also far exceeding the daily sodium limits, though not quite as severely.

A salt shaker.

Even though sodium in food or salting your food doesn’t add calories to your meals, over the past several decades, an extensive body of research has amassed demonstrating the correlation between high sodium intake and high blood pressure.

When we eat salty foods or foods containing sodium, the sodium is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract along with water.

This is why excess salt consumption can lead to bloating or holding more water weight, and the lack of salt can cause dehydration, not only in terms of body fluid levels but also at the cellular level.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has become increasingly prevalent over the past few decades, with nearly half of all American adults now suffering from hypertension (and similar rates in other Western countries).

Although there are numerous factors that contribute to developing hypertension, the high prevalence is believed to be at least partially attributable to the pervasiveness of processed foods in the typical Western diet.

Salt written in grains of salt.

Processed foods are often laden with added sodium, even in foods that we do not generally think of as particularly salty. 

Everything from canned tomato sauce and canned soups to breakfast cereals, fast food, snack foods, frozen dinners, restaurant foods, and even sports drinks are loaded with salt.

Thus, a low sodium diet like the DASH Diet can address hypertension by limiting sodium intake. 

Studies have found that the DASH Diet can improve overall health and help aid weight loss.

Looking for more information about what constitutes a healthy diet? Check out our guide to what healthy, balanced eating looks like here.

Dash diet written on a notebook page.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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