Health experts agree, too much salt is a bad thing. But how much is too much? Salt is OK when kept to a minimum. The typical American, however, consumes more than eight times what the body needs, and some people, including those taking corticosteroids, may react poorly to excess salt. The brain, heart and muscles require only 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day to work properly, and that amount is easily met in a typical diet, says Lalita Kaul, PhD, nutrition professor at Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.

The average American consumes 4,000 mg of sodium a day, however. The latest guidelines recommend that people over 51 years old, African American, or with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease consume 1,500 mg – about ½ teaspoon – of sodium each day. Everyone else should limit salt intake to 2,300 mg a day.

Consuming a single teaspoon – or less – of table salt a day seems daunting, but it can be done, says Kaul, and your efforts will be well rewarded, reducing your risk for a host of conditions, including hypertension, which develops in nine of every 10 adults, and can lead to stroke, kidney disease and heart attack.

People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may be at higher risk for salt’s effects. RA can cause coronary arteries to become inflamed, increasing the risk of hypertension. Corticosteroids, commonly used to treat RA, cause the body to retain more sodium. Kaul's recommendation: Keep salt intake below 1,500 mg. Eating less salt may also reduce the loss of calcium from bones, reducing the risks of osteoporosis and fractures.

Some people are not adversely affected by salt intake, easily ridding themselves of sodium through urine, says Kaul. “But most people are ‘salt responders’ in whom high sodium intake makes cells attract water like a sponge. The retention of water increases pressure on blood vessels and raises blood pressure,” says Kaul. Older people, African-Americans and post-menopausal women tend to be more sensitive. Because there’s no easy test to tell which category people fall into, experts suggest everyone monitor their salt intake.

Even if you aren’t a “salt shaker,” you may get too much. Nearly all canned, ready-made, convenience foods contain sodium to keep them from spoiling, and restaurant cooks add salt to make food tasty, says Kaul.

Taste buds, however, can adapt to lower levels of salt. At first, foods may not taste salty enough, but after a transition period, which varies with individuals, foods you once liked may taste too salty. And that’s a good thing, says Kaul.