Let’s Talk Salt

I wanted to take a moment to talk about a very sneaky nutrient in our diets: salt (or sodium). Firstly, it’s important to note that sodium IS a nutrient — the body needs sodium and adequate amounts of it in order to function properly. We have sodium to thank for life-sustaining processes such as the pumping of the heart. Together, sodium and potassium keep us alive and well.

But when we get too much sodium over a long period of time, we increase our risk of developing hypertention (and some cancers), thus increasing risk of heart disease and stroke. No bueno. The American Dietetic Association currently recognizes 2,300 milligrams of sodium (1 teaspoon of salt) as an acceptable daily intake for healthy individuals and knocks that recommendation down to 1,500 milligrams for individuals with diagnosed hypertension, those over the age of 40, and African Americans. Healthy young adults need at least 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day; adults 51 to 70 require 1,300 milligrams, and the elderly require only 1,200 milligrams per day.

While there are some clear-cut ways to reduce sodium intake in the diet, even a well-balanced diet can easily include too much sodium. Eating at home and limiting intake of prepared and processed foods can drastically reduce sodium in the diet. But it should be noted that many “healthy” foods contain considerable amounts of sodium, as well. Whole grain breads, whole grain cereals, cheese and cottage cheese, nut butters (and nuts), salad dressings, condiments, and canned products all contain generous amounts of sodium. While some of these products offer a low-sodium or salt-free option, many do not.

It is also important to note that fat-free and low-fat products often reduce the fat content but increase the sugar and/or sodium content to preserve palatable tastes and textures. Therefore, going low-fat or fat-free may not always be the “best” options, depending on your needs.

This time of year, I struggle with limiting the sodium content in some of my favorite foods…like chilis and recipes using canned tomatoes and tomato products. As the summer produce widdles away and the prices soar as quickly as the quality drops, canned products become preferred for both taste and the pocketbook. As you scan the canned goods, always keep an eye out for “no added salt” or “low sodium” options. Choosing these goods over their counterparts can reduce the sodium by 1/3, if not more — often times, that’s more than 100-200 milligrams savings per serving.

Other tips to decrease sodium in the diet:

  • Little stuff adds up. 100 milligrams here and there quickly amounts to large intakes.
  • When cooking with canned beans, drain and rinse the beans — doing so will reduce the sodium content by 40% or more!
  • You can always add salt in cooking, but you can never take it away. Reduce the salt a recipe calls for by half or more, and add as needed. Note: this may not work well with yeast and baking.
  • Compare brands. For whatever reason, especially with cheeses and canned goods, there can be a huge variation in the sodium content between manufacturers.
  • Limit the use of prepared, packaged seasonings. Making your own taco, fajita, and chili seasonings at home is simple, quick, and ecnomical…and much lower in sodium.
  • If it comes in a box, be sure to read the label and compare products.
  • Pay attention to serving sizes. Similarly, if an entire meal calculates to xxx-xxxx milligrams of sodium, it’s important to recognize that that is the value for the ENTIRE meal.
  • Increase fruits and vegetables in the diet as they are naturally low-sodium options.
  • Consider salt substitutes (i.e. Mrs. Dash) and spices before always reaching for the salt shaker.

Reduce the sodium in your diet slowly. Your taste buds adjust over time and as you reduce your sodium intake, your palate will adapt to require less and less salt to provide the same great flavors.

And remember, your body looks at averages…having a high-salt meal can still be managed into a healthy diet. I try to reiterate this when I post recipes that contain 700+ milligrams of salt, because that is considered a high-sodium meal. I struggle most with recipes using canned beans, canned tomatoes, canned tomato products, and soy sauce (even the low-sodium variety).

Assuming three meals a day, keeping at 2,300 milligrams or less a day still allows for ~760 milligrams per meal. You can distribute that amount amongst meals as one sees fit, allowing for a higher sodium meals.

Question: Do you feel your salt intake is below or above the recommended 2,300 milligrams a day?

Be well,

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17 Comments

  1. October 5, 2011 / 7:06 am

    Did you see that article about how the salt industry is repealing the new sodium guidelines? They are saying they are unrealistically low, which, after reading the article I almost agreed to! I mean, 1500 mg is pretty ridiculous considering most Americans get twice or three times that amount. I know it’s scientifically proven, however, we need to make other foods cheaper if we are going to expect the majority of Americans to actually reach that goal (or stay within those guidelines). It’s tough. We need more RDs to help educate!

  2. October 5, 2011 / 7:41 am

    I have switched to using other spices and flavorings other than salt as to keep it at lower levels. This is something I often lecture my mom about- I swear it’s the only thing she ever uses… Oy…

  3. October 5, 2011 / 8:38 am

    Great post on sodium!! …IDK…I feel like mine is a bit high…but then again, I don’t eat many processed foods, I do buy low sodium turkey lunchmeat, the only canned veggies I use are tomatoes, stocks and beans…and I rinse the beans and do normally buy low sodium stocks and no added salt tomatoes. But sometimes I think I might be a tad heavy handed when seasoning things on my own…even though I use kosher salt exclusively. So IDK, if the little things I do are helping or I am undermining with my own taste buds….

    I’d love to see more nutrition related posts like this Nicole!

  4. amy
    October 5, 2011 / 8:48 am

    For the most part, I think i manage my sodium fairly well. I don’t add it to any cooking (okay, other than oven fries because it’s just not the same without it) and eat very few prepared foods.

    I also JUST found Campbell’s no added sodium broth, so I’m pretty stoked about that. (I’m in Canada – so guessing it’s been available in the US for a while already). It’s VERY bland, but I can add salt to my tastes.

  5. October 5, 2011 / 8:50 am

    I don’t pay too much attention to sodium levels of food, to be honest. I figure that because I make most of my foods from scratch at home that they can’t be all that high in sodium and I know how much salt I’m adding.
    Like you, I think the worst culprits in my diet are probably canned beans and tomatoes.

    I know that I probably should limit my intake but I`m curious if eating a high sodium diet causes hypertension or if it just aggravates it. ie) Will eating a low sodium diet help prevent me from getting hypertension?

    • Nicole
      Author
      October 5, 2011 / 9:15 pm

      A high sodium diet increases risk of developing hypertension, yep.

  6. October 5, 2011 / 10:17 am

    I think most days I’m on the lower end of salt intake. As it gets cooler though, my sodium intake definitely goes way up because of soups, Ramen Noodles (my weekness) and chili’s. I try to increase my water though!

  7. October 5, 2011 / 10:21 am

    Great tips! Here’s another: for those that use canned veggies, opt for frozen instead. I don’t use very many canned veggies, but one that comes to mind is artichokes. I’ve switched to frozen for the lower sodium.

  8. October 5, 2011 / 10:39 am

    Great post! I don’t salt my food once it hits my plate – but I always wonder about my sodium intake.

    A few years ago I had to go to a kidney specialist because I didn’t eat enough salt – so I started adding more to my cooking, etc. But I still wonder if I consume too much now…

  9. October 5, 2011 / 10:41 am

    This is good to know (and beautiful picture, by the way… I love the little spoon). I’m a pharmacist, and I have several patients and co-workers with high blood pressure. They are always asking me about sodium.

  10. October 5, 2011 / 12:52 pm

    Salt is my weakness. I love the stuff. I try really hard not to add too much to my cooking, and I read labels, but I think my intake is still high. I never, ever thought about sodium content in cheese before – other than feta – so now Im afraid to go home and read those labels again.

  11. October 5, 2011 / 1:08 pm

    Thankfully growing up, my mom wasn’t a big salt user. As a result of that, I’m not either. I still do a lot of canned beans, tomatoes, etc so I’m sure I get way more than I think.
    Great post!

  12. October 5, 2011 / 2:30 pm

    Great sodium post Nicole! And something many of us need to take a closer look at. (I should have used saltier language in my comment! 🙂 OMG…I can’t believe I wrote that!) Have a great day!

  13. Amy Ramos
    October 5, 2011 / 4:53 pm

    Given my husband is taking BP meds, it is extremely important that we maintain a low sodium diet. It has worked. I buy everything that is low in sodium or make it myself. I use dried beans instead of canned, low sodium stock, and canned soups,
    I read all the labels. I can not believe how much sodium is in alot of stuff. Take gnocchi, 480mg for 1/2 cup!? That is alot. Even FF feta cheese has over 300 mg for 1 oz. Eek. That is alot.
    It is a work in progress but it makes me feel better knowing what we are putting into our bodies.

  14. October 5, 2011 / 6:35 pm

    you mention canned tomato sauce as one of the items you get that tends to be high in sodium… I’ve found that tomato paste generally has significantly lower levels of sodium per serving than sauce, and if you are further cooking it you shouldn’t notice a difference in taste. But as always, check the labels, the amount varies from brand to brand.

  15. October 6, 2011 / 12:18 am

    I used to love salt but have really retrained my taste buds. I think the only way to meaningfully reduce sodium in your diet is to cook as much as possible from scratch and not use a lot of prepared sauces, seasonings, etc. Also, restaurant food is often super salty. Now that I have retrained my taste buds, I often find restaurant dishes way too salty and unappealing….

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