Seasoned advice about boosting health by cutting down the sodium in your daily diet
WRITTEN BY Robin Howard
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Scott Henderson
A single teaspoon of salt may not seem like much, but it’s more than the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sodium intake of two-thirds of a teaspoon. And most Americans blow right past that threshold, consuming an average of one and a half teaspoons (3,400 milligrams) of sodium daily.
A dash of salt is okay to highlight flavors in food, because our bodies need some salt to function. In fact, consuming too little can cause hyponatremia, which may lead to brain swelling, headaches, seizures, cramps, nausea, dizziness and, in severe cases, shock or coma. But since our diets typically contain more salt than we need, consuming too little is unlikely. On the flip side, overeating sodium can result in hypertension and elevated risks of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
So how can we strike a balance between too briny and too bland? Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated primary care physician Dr. Julie Nicholson serves up a sprinkling of insight about the short- and long-term benefits of cutting down on salt as well as tips for making a low-sodium diet more palatable.
“Different organizations have slight variances in their recommended daily amounts of salt,” she says. “If we go by the American Heart Association, the ideal daily sodium intake is less than 1,500 milligrams a day. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advise no more than 2,300 milligrams.”
In a Pinch
Who among us hasn’t crunched through an entire bag of potato chips? Salt is a highly addictive flavor, and cravings for its taste can be triggered by a number of factors, including stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, increased sweating and hormone imbalance. Plus, huge amounts of added salt can dull our taste buds, so more and more is needed to achieve the salty flavor our bodies desire.
Thankfully, excess salt can be flushed from our systems fairly swiftly, and reducing sodium can yield fast returns. Studies have shown that putting salt in check can begin to lower blood pressure in as little as a week or two. And since excess sodium causes the kidneys to hold onto water to balance the body’s electrolyte ratio, decreasing the salt in your diet will likely lead to losing a few pounds of water weight. Intentionally cutting back on salt usually shifts a person’s diet towards healthier, less processed foods. Eating more whole foods can result in additional weight loss, thanks to a drop in added sugar and highly processed carbohydrates. You’ll probably notice fewer cravings for salty foods as your taste buds become accustomed to the change, as well.
“Those excess fluids that the body retains due to high levels of sodium also lead to an increase in blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can damage the heart, kidneys, brain and blood vessels,” warns Dr. Nicholson. In the long run, limiting salt consumption to less than 2,300 milligrams a day slashes the risk of complications from high blood pressure, including cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attack. According to a recent study of China published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, a nationwide reduction of daily salt consumption by 1,000 milligrams could prevent nine million cardiovascular disease events and strokes by 2030, four million of which would have been fatal.
Research has also shown that people with high blood pressure who eat a lower sodium diet have fewer headaches. Additionally, elevated sodium levels have been linked to gastric cancer, so lowering your salt consumption could reduce the risk of stomach cancer. Another bonus? Because added sodium makes the body excrete calcium, the mineral has been associated with lower bone density. Limiting dietary salt can work in reverse, improving bone health.
A Grain of Salt
Significantly cutting back on salt may seem like a daunting endeavor, says Dr. Nicholson, but the shift can be achieved with a step as simple as avoiding prepackaged foods. “Sodium is used as a preservative to extend the shelf life of processed foods. Since most foods with excess salt are prepackaged—things like canned produce, pantry items or restaurant fare—you can cut salt intake heavily by sticking to fresh produce and meats. Even a lot of sweets include excess sodium,” she explains. “About 70 percent of the sodium we consume comes from packaged foods or restaurants, so you should always check nutrition labels for sodium numbers. Make sure to note the serving size and understand how many servings are in one package.”
The salt we add when cooking accounts for less of our sodium consumption than processed foods, but Dr. Nicholson still recommends experimenting with salt substitutes at home. “There are many low-sodium seasonings or salt substitutes, including Mrs. Dash, which is salt-free. Morton has a salt substitute, and Slap Ya Mama Cajun seasoning has a low-sodium version.” Just keep in mind that salt substitutes are made with potassium chloride, which provides a similar flavor but should be used in moderation, because it, too, can have side effects, such as elevating your potassium, which can be detrimental to the heart. “It’s always a good idea to discuss the use of salt substitutes with your doctor to make sure you don’t have a specific medical reason that would prevent you from safely using them. If you can’t find low-sodium versions or salt substitutes in the store, check online to see if you can order them,” advises the doctor.
Dr. Nicholson recommends thoroughly rinsing canned beans and vegetables before cooking to wash off some of the salt preservative. “Also, if you’re cooking rice or pasta, skip adding salt to the water,” she says. The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), an eating pattern designed to prevent and control high blood pressure, offers a good template for building meals with less salt. The plan includes foods rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium and low in sodium, saturated fat and added sugars. “The DASH Diet has many health benefits, but specifically can improve your blood pressure,” she notes.
“Kicking the salt habit can be similar to kicking the sugar habit,” Dr. Nicholson explains. “It usually takes six to eight weeks for your palate to readjust to less salty foods. For some people, a quick transition to a stricter low sodium diet is the best method, but for others, slowly reducing salt intake over time might be more manageable and more sustainable.”
“Sodium chloride is what we commonly think of when we think of salt. This is table salt,” says Dr. Nicholson. But like sugar, salt goes by many names on a nutrition label ingredient list. Others include:
• monosodium glutamate (MSG)
• sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
• vegetable salt (i.e., celery, onion or garlic salt)
• baking powder
• disodium phosphate
• sodium ascorbate
• sodium nitrate
• meat/yeast extract
• rock/sea salt