Sodium - The Newest Dietary No-No
We've certainly heard our fair share about the dangers of excess calories, fats, trans fats and sugars. Now, it seems, our attention is being shifted to another danger in the diet, too much salt. And there's good reason for concern. It's been known for a long time that diets high in sodium increase the risk for high blood pressure and stroke, but with so much sodium in the food supply, we're simply eating way too much.
There's no question that we love salt, and we have good reason to. Salt does much more than just make foods taste salty. Salt makes sweet foods taste sweeter which is why some people put salt on their fruit. It decreases bitterness and can even enhance the aroma of food.
The newest dietary guidelines say that most people should limit their sodium intake to 2300 mg a day - the equivalent of about a teaspoon of salt. And if you're over 50, your risk for high blood pressure increases, so you should cut back to about 1500 mg. That's a tall order when the average American takes in more than twice that - 3400 mg a day, or the equivalent of about 1 ½ teaspoons of salt every single day.
But most of the sodium we eat isn't coming from salt that we add in cooking or at the table. There's so much sodium in processed foods that even if you never picked up a salt shaker, you'd probably end up eating more than you should. We get heaps of sodium from processed cheeses, lunch meats, condiments, snack foods and soups. And it gets hidden in foods that don't even taste that salty. I've seen bagels with 400 mg of sodium, cottage cheese with more sodium than a serving of potato chips, and plenty of cereals with 200 mg or more per serving - and those servings are pretty small.
Restaurant dining is a double threat – not only are the chefs heavy-handed with the salt shaker, but the portions tend to be huge, too. A rack of baby back ribs from your local barbecue joint can pack nearly two days' worth of sodium. And plenty of healthy-sounding entrée salads aren't much better.
One of the first steps in cutting back on your sodium, then, is to try to curb your intake of heavily processed foods and obviously salty things like snack chips, regular canned soup, and salty condiments. Read your labels carefully and look for low sodium versions of packaged foods like beans, tuna, baked goods, cereals and vegetables.
Keep in mind that the closer foods are to their natural state, the less sodium they're likely to have. Regular rolled oats, for example, have absolutely no sodium, but some instants run as high as 250 mg per packet. Roasted fresh turkey breast has only about 15 mg of natural sodium per ounce, while processed turkey lunch meat has more than 20 times that amount.
When you eat out, it's best to opt for items that are more simply prepared - grilled meats fish and poultry, steamed veggies, lightly dressed salads. But the more you can prepare foods at home, the better. Not only can you control the salt, but you can make dishes taste even better by seasoning with strongly flavored spices, herbs, lemon, onion and garlic. And don't forget to fill in with plenty of fruits and vegetables. They're delicious, they're healthy, and they're naturally low in sodium.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.