Salt: Is It Really a Four Letter Word?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
Salt is the latest food ingredient to make waves—and for good reason. On average, Americans consume about 3,500 milligrams of sodium each day (sodium makes up 40 percent of salt; the other 60 percent comes from chloride); that’s considerably more than the 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams recommended in the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
We do need some sodium—it helps regulate blood pressure, maintain fluid balance, and performs many other vital body functions. But having too much from processed, packaged, and restaurant foods (which make up about ¾ of our total daily sodium intake—the rest comes from the shaker) can raise the risk of high blood pressure that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Over time, too much sodium does more than just bloat us (who isn’t familiar with that puffed up feeling after a heavy restaurant meal?); it makes it tough for kidneys to excrete excess sodium, especially when we’re not adequately hydrated. This can lead to edema (swelling in your face or extremities). A high sodium diet that’s also low in calcium (from dairy or plant sources, fish, or fortified foods) makes it more likely you’ll break a bone or develop osteoporosis down the road.
Of course an occasional high sodium meal or extra sprinkle or two of salt at the dinner table won’t ruin an otherwise healthful diet. But making slight dietary adjustments to taper sodium intake not only protects your heart, but may improve the quality of your diet (especially since many high sodium foods are nutrient poor, and/or pack in calories, fat, sugar, and other things we should limit to manage our weight and improve health).
The good news is that Americans may soon find it easier to slash sodium thanks to the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI). This New York City-led partnership of cities, states, and health organizations, launched in January 2010, encourages food companies and restaurants to voluntarily cut sodium in packaged and restaurant foods by 25 percent over five years.
Although it may be years before we see widespread sodium reductions in our food supply, a few simple steps can help you painlessly curb your sodium intake. First, see where it lurks in your diet.
If you eat out or rely on take-out food often:
- Try to find out how much sodium is in your favorite foods (menus or company/restaurant web sites may provide this information).
- Ask for foods prepared without added salt.
- Choose unbreaded, unfried options.
- Request sauces, dressings, and condiments on the side and use your fork for dipping instead of pouring them on your food.
When grocery shopping:
- Read Nutrition Facts Panels on food packages.
- Choose lower sodium or no salt added versions of snack foods like pretzels and chips, condiments such as mustard, salsa, soy sauce, and salad dressings, canned foods such as vegetables, soups and beans, dairy foods, processed meats like salami and hot dogs, and breads, cereals, and baked dessert-type foods.
- When you buy frozen foods, choose unbreaded, unfried options made without heavy or cheesy sauces.
- Buy plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), and grains; these high water, high fiber, potassium-rich foods (all naturally low in sodium) fill you up and at the same time, blunt the effects of a high sodium diet.
- Rinse canned foods like beans and fish to remove some of the sodium they contain.
- Replace table salt with herbs and spices that don’t contain salt.
- If you want to add salt, add it sparingly to cooked food.
- Consider using Kosher or sea salt instead of table salt since they have less sodium per tablespoon.
Are you concerned about sodium?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and author of Nutrition At Your Fingertips, Feed Your Family Right!, and So What Can I Eat?!. She is also a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com, and www.nutritionatyourfingertips.com. Follow Elisa on Twitter and Elisa on Facebook.