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?