Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
The American Heart Association recommends that most adults consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium in a day, with the maximum being 2,300 mg. The actual average? A whopping 3,400 milligrams. We Americans do love our salt, and 70% of it comes from restaurants and packaged foods. This makes it difficult to control how much we consume.
What is so bad about too much sodium? It can increase our blood pressure, and over time, high blood pressure is a leading cause of many conditions, including kidney failure, heart attack, and stroke. Every one of us can benefit by restricting our salt intake to the recommended levels. Here are some suggestions:
There are natural salts in fresh cuts of meat, chicken, and fish, but far less than in their processed versions. Use fresh foods, rather than packaged.
Look for fresh or frozen poultry that has not been injected with sodium. Read the fine print on the packaging and be on the lookout for terms like broth, saline, or sodium solution.
When you do buy packaged and prepared foods, choose them carefully. Brands differ, and sodium content will be listed on the label.
Select your condiments carefully. Soy sauce, bottled salad dressings, dips, ketchup, salsa, capers, mustard, pickles, olives, and relish often have lower salt options available.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are naturally very low in sodium. If you buy frozen varieties, look for the words “fresh frozen.” Canned or frozen produce often have added sodium, but look for ones which state that they do not.
When buying packaged items, look for the red American Heart Association Heart-Check mark.
Choose spices and seasonings that do not list sodium as an ingredient. For example, use garlic powder instead of garlic salt. Salt substitutes often contain potassium, and are not only a good alternative to sodium, but can actually lower blood pressure. (Of course, make sure that you have no health issues with potassium.)
Potassium-rich foods include sweet potatoes, potatoes, greens, tomatoes, white beans, kidney beans, nonfat yogurt, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe.
Before going to a restaurant, take a look at its website. Restaurants often list the sodium content of their menu items. When ordering, don’t hesitate to ask for their lower sodium dishes.
Don’t be fooled by dishes that may not taste salty. (Cottage cheese is a good example!) Read those labels.
For some, adding salt before tasting has become a habit. Always taste your food first.
Use onions, garlic, herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars in place of some or all of the salt.
Drain or rinse your canned beans and vegetables in order to cut the sodium by as much as 40%.
Try combining lower-sodium versions of food with the regular versions – like broths, soups, soy sauce and tomato-based pasta sauces.
Try preparing your pasta, rice and hot cereal without salt.
Grilling, braising, roasting, searing and sauteing can bring out natural flavors, and reduce the need for added salt.
Watch out for words on labels like pickled, brined, barbecued, cured, smoked, au jus, or soy, miso or teriyaki sauce. These tend to be extremely high in salt.
Cut your portion sizes! Eating less food means that you are also cutting down on the sodium.
Reducing the salt content of your diet is not easy. Salt makes food taste so good! So many of us rely on foods like bread, pizza, tacos, sandwiches, soup, and cheeses, which are extremely high in sodium. Our culture does not encourage us to make this switch easily, so it is up to us.
On the positive side, with less salt, we can better taste our food’s natural flavors. Salt preference is often an acquired taste that can be changed. Over time, our taste buds will adjust to a lower sodium diet, and our blood pressure will thank us!