Salt – We Love It, but We Eat Too Much
By Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
Salt is found in so many foods that it’s virtually impossible to avoid. But you may have noticed that you’re hearing more and more about salt these days – how we eat too much of it, and how hard it is to avoid.
And the call to reduce our intake of salt – or more technically, sodium chloride – isn’t just restricted to adults. Kids tend to eat too much sodium, too, especially if their diets contain too many processed and convenience foods that are loaded with it. One concern is that if kids get too used to the taste of salt, they’ll carry it with them through adulthood and eating too much sodium can elevate blood pressure, which tends to rise as people get older.
Lots of plant foods such as celery and spinach, naturally contain small amounts of sodium that add to their flavor. Back before humans had salt shakers, it was actually hard to get enough sodium, so the pleasant salty flavor in plants may have been put there by Mother Nature to entice people to eat them – not just to get sodium, but other minerals like potassium, that the plants contain, too.
The small amounts of natural sodium in vegetables probably go unnoticed by most people. We dump so much salt on our foods that our taste buds are accustomed to much, much more. The other reason we love salt is because it does much more than just make foods taste salty. Salt makes sweet foods taste sweeter, tones down bitterness and makes foods smell better, too. No wonder we crave it.
Everyone needs some sodium in the diet, but there’s a huge divide between how much we should be eating and what we’re actually consuming. Recommended levels are in the range of 1500-2200 mg of sodium a day for kids aged 9-13, and only slightly more for adults, depending on their calorie intake. That’s a tall order when teenage boys are taking in, on average, almost 4000 mg of sodium and girls are eating nearly 3000 mg a day. By the time those boys reach college, they’re topping out at nearly 4500 mg every day. It’s not hard to see why, when a fast food meal alone can have 3000 mg.
The problem is that sodium is so hard to avoid. There is so much salt in processed foods and in typical restaurant dishes that even if you never picked up a salt shaker, you’d probably be eating too much. The biggest offenders are cheeses, lunch meats, condiments, snack foods and soups, but even foods that don’t taste salty can be a sodium problem - a big bowl of some breakfast cereals can have more than 500 mg.
Restaurants tend to pile it on, too, not only are the dishes often loaded with salt, but also the portions are huge. Since sodium and calorie intake go hand-in-hand, the more food you eat, the more sodium you take in, too.
Cutting back isn’t that hard, especially if you start by cutting out the obvious things – like salty snacks, canned soups and heavily processed foods. Take your kids to the market with you, have them look at food labels for sodium content, and ask them to help you find lower salt versions of foods like beans, tuna and vegetables. Let them experiment with other seasonings – like herbs, spices, lemon, garlic, curry or whatever else they decide to throw in. You never know – these happy accidents could lead to some new, healthier family favorites.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.