Sodium is under fire as a nutrition no-no. Here’s why and how to avoid it.
BY ALTHEA ZANECOSKY
Move over, transfat and sugar! Sodium is under fire as the next nutrition no-no. Sodium levels in foods have been on the nutrition watch list for years because too much of this mineral is associated with high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart disease and stroke.
The main source of sodium in the diet is salt (sodium chloride), which is 40 percent sodium by weight. In April, the Food and Drug Administration announced its intent to examine ways to reduce salt in the American diet, beginning with a call for voluntary cutbacks from the food industry.
Why do we need salt? In our bodies, sodium regulates muscle contractions, nerve impulses, water levels and more. Every cell needs it, and we’re programmed to like it. Sodium combines with chlorine to form sodium chloride (NaCl), our ordinary table salt.
But if you take in more sodium than the kidneys can handle, the blood retains water, forcing the heart to work harder. This increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and avoidable death.
Who should care about consuming too much salt? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just about everyone needs to eat less salt! The CDC states that 70 percent of U.S. adults should limit sodium intake.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about one teaspoon of salt) per day. A lower limit of 1,500 mg per day is recommended for adults with high blood pressure, those older than 40, and all African-American adults.
A child typically needs between 1,000 mg (ages 2-3) to 2,000 mg (ages 9-13) per day. Most adults consume around 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day and the typical child takes in at least 2,800 mg per day.
A New National Goal. For decades, Americans have been ignoring advice to eat less salt — mostly because it’s hard to avoid. Many processed and restaurant foods are loaded with sodium.
For manufacturers, cutting salt requires more than just laying off the shaker. Salt balances flavors and textures in products such as bread, cheese, cereal and yogurt-based drinks that don’t necessarily taste salty. It acts as a preservative, fighting the growth of bacteria. Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is that without sodium, food can taste bland.
To lower salt levels, companies are turning to new strategies, from substituting other spices to developing molecules that
can replace or enhance salt. Many restaurant chains are trimming salt content and now provide sodium information on their websites or menus. Considering that trans-fat removal took about two years, salt won’t disappear overnight.
Reducing salt at home. Nutrition labels on packages can help you keep track of sodium. Most of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods such as salad dressings, soups, baked goods and snack foods, so cut back on portions. Pickles, cheese, smoked meats, gravies, broths and sauces (barbecue, soy) are usually high in sodium, so use sparingly. Some foods now have lower-sodium versions and many are better-tasting than what was on the market a few years ago.
Just a light sprinkling of salt on scrambled eggs or fresh sliced tomatoes can give you the salt flavor you crave.
Sea salt (which by weight contains the same amount of sodium as regular salt) is often brighter and livelier in flavor so you tend to use less.
Good news: Taste buds adjust. Most people who cut back on salt get used to it in about three weeks.
DASH to it! The National Institutes of Health’s DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a healthy eating style that can lower sodium intake.
The key to the DASH diet is variety. It includes lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. It also includes some fish, poultry and legumes. The fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products in the DASH diet are naturally low in sodium. That means it’ll take less effort to reduce the salt in your diet.
The mix of potassium, calcium and magnesium in the DASH diet also helps the body excrete salt. For more on the DASH Diet see www.nhlbi.nih.gov.
Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.