Last month, I wrote about making swaps for better health. I want to follow up on one of those suggestions with a deeper look at why too much salt is not good for us and a number of thoughts about how to work on decreasing our salt intake.
The good news is the government, in the form of the Food and Drug Administration, is trying to look out for us. Since the majority of sodium (the culprit in salt) we consume comes from packaged food and restaurant meals, the FDA has asked food manufacturers and restaurants of all types to voluntarily reduce salt in higher sodium products and menu items by approximately 20 percent over the next 2½ years. If the guidance is followed, they estimate average sodium intake could decrease by about 700 milligrams a day, which is about 20 percent of the average intake.
Since this is a request without penalties for failure to comply, time will tell just how effective it turns out to be. While we wait to see what happens it makes sense to do what we can to lower our sodium consumption.
But, before I get to that, let me remind you of why the government thinks we should lower sodium in our diets, and why you should, too. We don’t want a no-salt diet, it’s an essential nutrient. We need a small amount of it for nerve and muscle function, and to maintain the proper balance of fluids within our cells and blood. But lots of studies have shown that at least 90 percent of the U.S. population consume more than the recommended 2,300 milligrams a day and almost half consume twice as much.
When there is excess sodium in the blood, the body dilutes it by drawing water into the blood vessels. That increased blood volume puts additional pressure on blood vessel walls and can eventually lead to high blood pressure and other heart diseases. According to a recent study of more than 10,000 adults, as sodium goes above the recommended daily consumption level, there is a gradual increase in risk for heart disease. An earlier study concluded that 1 in 10 deaths from heart disease is due, at least in part, to a high-sodium diet.
The bottom line: salt is so common in our food supply that we need to find ways to decrease intake when we can for better health in the long run.
It will help to estimate your sodium consumption on several days to get an idea where you are starting from. Read those package nutrition labels. You may find sodium in places you don’t expect. And you also may find areas where there are easy ways to get your sodium intake down.
Just decreasing both eating out and ordering in is a simple solution, but it is not the only one and may be not the optimal one. We need to be able to enjoy ourselves and splurge occasionally. So, encourage places you frequent to use less salty ingredients and serve sauces, dressings and gravies on the side. National chains and some local restaurants provide nutrition information on their menus or online. Another thought, take half of your servings home and cut your sodium intake for that meal by half — and calories, too.
As we’ve indicated, much of our salt intake comes from prepared or processed foods bought at the grocery store. So just eat less of those very convenient items. That’s certainly easier said than done. But there are an increasing number of lower salt items available. Again, make a habit of looking at the nutrition label for sodium when you are shopping. Even though the front of the package may say “Reduced Sodium” or “No salt added,” the product may not be truly low in sodium or salt free, just reduced from what it used to be or too salty even without any added.
Remember the daily consumption recommendation. And 5 percent or less of the recommended daily consumption is considered a low sodium (115mg) product, 20 percent or more is high (460mg). Look at the number of servings per container. If the package says two servings per container and you eat the whole can or package, remember, you get twice the sodium.
Train your taste buds to like less sodium. Don’t salt food without tasting it. Get a salt shaker with smaller holes or a salt with larger crystals (like Kosher or sea salt) or try a salt substitute like Morton Light Salt (50 percent less sodium) or Accent (MSG, ⅔ less sodium). We rarely if ever add salt to our meals, but Mrs. Dash seasonings (0 mg sodium) or other herbs and spices perk up the flavor of steamed vegetables, salads, meats and more.
Whenever possible choose fresh, frozen or canned vegetables with no added sauces or seasonings. With poultry, seafood and lean meats look for fresh or frozen products you can prepare yourself, giving you control over seasoning and sodium.
Look for ways to cut back on salt in your diet. Your heart will be happy.