In culinary circles, salt is king. In addition to making food taste more flavorful, it also serves as a preservative to make food last longer. But when it comes to health, salt gets a bad rap.
Salt is made up of two minerals: sodium and chloride. Sodium is the culprit that gives salt a bad name. But sodium is not evil! It has important roles to play in your body. Sodium helps to:
- Regulate the optimal balance of fluids
- Maintain normal blood pressure
- Support nerve and muscle function
Your body needs sodium. The problem is that most Americans consume far too much.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, which is approximately one teaspoon of salt. (And it recommends no more than 1,500 mg for those with high blood pressure or over age 50.) However, the average American gets about 3,400 mg daily.
The Danger of Too Much Salt
So, what’s the problem with too much sodium? It becomes a problem when your kidneys can’t get rid of your body’s excess sodium, which is part of their normal function. Sodium attracts and holds water, so when this excess sodium builds up in your blood, it pulls in more water into your blood, increasing the amount of blood in your arteries. This increase in blood pressure strains your blood vessels and heart. High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and kidney failure, among other things. And if you already have high blood pressure (whether due to diet or genetics) or have already had a heart attack or stroke, it can be especially unhealthy to consume too much sodium.
Some people are less sensitive to the effects of sodium than others. But sometimes, we are simply unaware of the effects of sodium on our bodies. High blood pressure is labeled a “silent killer” because it may show no symptoms until it is too late.
Is All Salt the Same?
You may believe that there are more healthful salts (like Pink Himalayan salt, or sea salt) than processed table salt. It is true that these alternatives contain more trace minerals than table salt, although it’s generally not enough to make a difference.
Table salt usually has iodine added, which is an essential nutrient that is lacking from most other less processed salt. If you do prefer a less processed salt, be sure you are getting a sufficient amount of iodine through other foods in your diet.
However, in terms of the amount of sodium, there is very little difference. Different types may have distinct textures and tastes due to origin and processing, but all salts contain comparable amounts of sodium.
Three Ways to Reduce Your Sodium Intake
1. Eat less processed food.
Over 70% of the sodium in the average American’s diet comes from processed food. A typical can of chicken soup can have around 900 mg of sodium per serving. (A single can may contain 2.5 servings). One piece of bread can have as much as 230 mg of sodium. Processed meats (lunch meat, bacon, hot dogs, sausage) are loaded with sodium.
There’s a reason an apple doesn’t have a nutrition label. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. By replacing processed foods with more whole foods, you will not only reduce your sodium consumption, but you will have a more nutritious diet overall.
TIP: Instead of reaching for crackers and store-bought dip, make your own hummus and eat it with carrots and cucumber sticks.
2. When you do buy processed food, get low sodium alternatives.
We get it, processed food can be hard to avoid completely. So when you do eat processed foods, purchase low sodium or no-salt-added options. A good practice is to check the nutrition label for less than 140 mg of sodium, which is considered “low sodium”.
A four ounce serving of deli turkey can contain 1,050 mg. By contrast, the same amount of fresh turkey contains only 55mg!
TIP: Even fresh poultry is often injected with added salt. Check the label on fresh or frozen poultry or meat for one that hasn’t been injected with a saltwater solution.
TIP: If you buy canned foods, drain and rinse them before eating. You can reduce the sodium of some vegetables by 9-23% and beans by 40%!
3. Cut back on condiments and sauces.
All of those delicious creamy additions we supplement our food with come at a cost. If you regularly enjoy store-bought salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, steak sauce, barbecue sauce, and dips, you are adding to your sodium intake. Soy sauce and certain marinades are especially high in sodium. Instead of using store-bought sauces, use seasoning and herbs for flavor, or make your own healthier versions. Often, heart-healthy olive oil can be a great option for topping anything from pasta to salads, and it can be flavored easily.
TIP: Use plain greek yogurt as a base for sauces and salad dressings. (Here is a great option to start with.) Mix in fresh herbs and salt-free seasoning. Adding acidic liquids like lemon juice or red wine vinegar transform flavor without the need for as much salt.
TIP: Instead of buying premade seasoning blends, do an internet search to make your own! (Here is one for a salt-free taco seasoning.) Even if you add salt to your blend, you can add far less than what is included in the store-bought mix.
Retrain Your Tastebuds to Stay Healthy!
Excess salt consumption is easy to overlook. But, as mentioned, excess sodium in your diet can trigger high blood pressure — the silent killer. Here at In and Out Express Care, we encourage people to have their blood pressure checked regularly — we recommend once a year for anyone over 40. If you haven’t had your blood pressure checked lately, schedule an annual physical at one of our four convenient urgent care clinics in Hampton Roads and let one of our friendly docs check you out!
When it comes to sodium, maybe the most important takeaway is this: salt is an acquired taste. That means you learned to love it…and you can learn to unlove it! If you gradually decrease the amount of salt you consume, your tastebuds will eventually adjust. It may take just a few weeks, or it could take 2-3 months. But, if you are consistent, you can retrain your tastebuds to have a lower preference for salt, and kick your salt habit for good! We’re rooting for you!