Admittedly, I’m not much of a salt lover. I have never put salt on my food, have been known to remove it, grain by grain, from hot, large pretzels (no joke!), and seldom add it while cooking (though I did add about 1/4 teaspoon to the red roasted potatoes I made at our barbecue the other night to please the palates of our company).
Though I’m not partial to salty tastes, like almost all of us I get most of the salt or sodium in my daily diet from packaged, processed, take-out, and restaurant fare. (Incidentally, salt is made of the two minerals sodium and chloride, but listed on food labels as sodium). The rest of the salt or sodium we consume each day, or about 25 percent of our total salt intake, comes from the shaker.
Truth be told, we need some sodium in out diet—about 500 milligrams, or about 1/5 of a teaspoon. Sodium is a major mineral that works with other minerals—potassium and chloride—to help our bodies maintain water balance and regulate blood pressure. Sodium also helps our muscles contract and supports some other functions as well.
But like most things in life, too much sodium in the daily diet can be a problem and cause some trouble for us down the road. Too much may not necessarily lead to high blood pressure, but many of us who are salt-sensitive may be at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease. Older people, those with a diagnosis of or family history of high blood pressure, those with other diseases such as diabetes or kidney disease, and African-Americans may all be more vulnerable to the effects of a high sodium diet. Too much salt can also make us feel physically inflated and bloated.
Current guidelines by the USDA recommend less than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day for most people, and no more than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day for those who are salt-sensitive. Unfortunately, most of us exceed the sodium recommendations by more than 50 percent.
As a registered dietitian, the biggest problem I see with a high sodium diet is that it is often devoid or inadequate in nutrients. If you think about it, most foods that are low in sodium are nutrient-dense...fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds (unsalted versions of course) and dried beans are some examples of low sodium, power-packed foods. Most foods that are high in sodium—canned soups, condiments, and sauces, snack and dessert-type foods (including baked foods), frozen foods, and processed meats are often laced with sodium and pack in a lot of calories and/or fat and sugar.
So what’s a person to do to lower their sodium intake without driving themselves completely insane? Eat more whole, fresh food. Load up on fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. When you buy canned and packaged foods, read food labels and look for low or lower-sodium products. Buy canned vegetables and beans made without added salt. Avoid fried and breaded foods when you eat out, as these will be loaded with sodium—and always ask for condiments on the side and limit your use of them.
These small steps will help you not only reduce your sodium intake, but help you consume a more healthful diet altogether.
DO YOU HAVE A NUTRITION OR DIET QUESTION FOR ELISA? EMAIL her at email@example.com
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
Spokesperson, American Dietetic Association
Author of the upcoming Nutrition At Your Fingertips (Alpha, November 2009)
Author, Feed Your Family Right! (Wiley, 2007) & So What Can I Eat?! (Wiley, 2006)
New York, New York