Okay, so you’ve been trying to cut back on the sodium. What’s all the hype about cutting back on the salt anyway? What’s a pinch of salt on your baked potato or a shake or two on your meat going to do? Actually, a pinch here and a dash there add up quickly to reach unhealthy levels of sodium, especially when most of the foods that we eat contain significant amounts of sodium. About 12 to 13% of the sodium in the average Canadian diet comes from adding salt and other condiments containing sodium to our food while cooking or eating. The majority of sodium the average person consumes—a whopping 77%—comes from eating prepared or processed foods. Nearly every processed and prepared food contains sodium. The rest of the sodium we consume is naturally present in foods, including meats, dairy products, and vegetables. So, if you eat like the average Canadian, the chances are very good that your sodium intake is too high.
While sodium can do a lot of damage to your health, it’s important to note that it’s also essential in small amounts. The body needs sodium to function well. Sodium helps to maintain the right balance of fluids in the body. It helps to transmit nerve impulses, and it helps to contract and relax our muscles. Your kidneys are responsible for regulating the amount of sodium that you retain in your body. When sodium levels are low, your kidneys tend to save up on the sodium. When levels are high, they eliminate the amount through your urine. Problems start to occur when there is too much sodium and the kidneys can’t get rid of enough of it. The sodium starts to build up in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, the excess sodium causes blood volume to increase. Increased blood volume, in turn, makes your heart work harder to move more blood through your blood vessels, increasing pressure in your arteries. The high blood pressure brought on by the sodium in our diets can lead to development of cardiovascular disease and kidney diseases.
So how much sodium do you really need? Health Canada suggests a limit of 2300mg of sodium per day. However, the American Heart Institute recommends an even lower limit of 1500mg/day. When choosing how much sodium to include in your diet, keep in mind that the lower your sodium intake, the more benefits you will enjoy, such as lower blood pressure, happier kidneys, and less fluid retention. Also, certain medical conditions may make you more sensitive to sodium, in which case it’s best to aim for a sodium limit at the low end of the recommended range for healthy adults. Talk to your doctor about the sodium level that’s best for you.
Taste alone will not tell you which foods are high in sodium. For example, you may not think a bagel tastes salty, but a 4-inch whole wheat bagel has 451mg of sodium. How do you identify foods high in sodium? The best way to determine sodium content is to read food labels. The nutrition label tells you how much sodium is in each serving. It also lists whether salt or sodium-containing compounds are ingredients. Examples of these compounds include monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate and sodium nitrate.
How can you slash the sodium?
- Eat more fresh foods and fewer processed foods. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. Also, fresh meat is lower in sodium than luncheon meat, bacon, hot dogs, sausage and ham. Choose fresh and frozen poultry or meat that hasn’t been injected with a sodium-containing solution. The Canadian government recently mandated that any meats treated or seasoned with sodium be labeled.
- Choose low-sodium products. If you buy processed foods, select those that are salt-free or are reduced-salt.
- Remove salt from recipes whenever possible. You can leave out the salt in many recipes, including casseroles, stews and other main dishes. Baked goods are an exception (leaving out the salt could affect the quality of the food).
- Limit your use of sodium-laden condiments. Salad dressings, sauces, dips, ketchup, mustard and relish all contain high levels of sodium.
- Use fresh herbs, spices and other flavourings to bring out the flavour in food. Learn how to use herbs, spices, zest from citrus fruit, and fruit juices to create delicious and tasty dishes.
- Use salt substitutes wisely. Some salt substitutes or light salts contain a mixture of table salt and other compounds. You may end up using too much of the salt substitute to get that familiar salty taste, which may mean you haven’t reduced the sodium at all. In addition, many salt substitutes contain potassium chloride. Though dietary potassium can lessen some of the harm of excess sodium, too much supplemental potassium can be harmful if you have kidney problems or if you’re taking medications for congestive heart failure or high blood pressure that cause potassium retention.
Everyone’s taste for salt is acquired. Since this taste is acquired, the good news is that it’s reversible. If you decrease your use of salt gradually, your taste buds will adjust accordingly. Most people find that after a few weeks of cutting back on salt, they no longer miss it. Start by using no more than 1/4 teaspoon of added salt daily, and then gradually reduce to the point where you are no longer adding salt to your foods. As you use less salt, your taste buds will allow you to enjoy the taste of the food itself, and your body (and your heart!) will thank you for it.