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Shake It, Baby! How to Cut Salt and Keep Flavor

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

If, in a haze of hunger, you scarfed down a bag of potato chips, what dietary concern would keep you up at night? The hundreds of calories that canceled out your morning run? The goopy fat that you imagine coursing around in your veins? Or how about the salt—would you worry about the fact that you gobbled down about half a day’s worth of sodium in that bag? Chances are, probably not. The truth is, on the running list of nutrition concerns, sodium doesn’t often top the chart for healthy people—but it should. Since the 1970’s our consumption of sodium has been on the rise. According to the American Heart Association, one in three Americans has high blood pressure, and even worse, an estimated 99 percent of middle-aged adults will develop it in their lifetime. So that’s just great. Now you can add high blood pressure to the list of undesirables to anticipate with age, like a beer gut, balding, and wrinkles.

But unlike the wrinkles and balding, many people can, to some extent, control their destiny when it comes to blood pressure. And if your family tree limbs link you to high blood pressure, you have even more reason to take control over your sodium intake, thus reducing your risk.   

How Out of Control Are We?
The good news is, sodium is the new “bad guy” in the nutrition world—and there’s a lot of news shaking, so to speak, about cutting back. That’s thanks, in part, to a report published in April by the Institutes of Medicine (IOM). The IOM recommendation is for government regulation to lower the sodium that is added to foods by the processed and food service industries. Such efforts, the IOM hopes, could help incrementally reduce the amount of sodium that Americans eat; thus, over time our tastes would begin to change, and our ‘salt tooth’ would be blunted.  

As it stands now, sodium and other sodium-containing additives (MSG and sodium citrate, for example) are categorized as GRAS—which means Generally Recognized as Safe—and there’s no regulation on an upper limit that can be added to processed foods. But since researchers figure that widespread efforts of cutting out just half a teaspoon of salt a day could prevent 99,000 Americans from having a heart attack, and save up to 92,000 lives a year, cutting back on sodium could be a public health boon. And after all, heart disease is the leading cause of death in men. So, yes, it would be good to get a little government assistance on shaving salt since 75 percent of the sodium we take in is from processed foods.

Currently, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that we limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, which is about one teaspoon. But advocates like the American Heart Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest  maintain that it’s better to aim for even less sodium—1,500 milligrams, which is about 2/3 teaspoon. In any case, we far exceed the recommendation for sodium intake—most Americans are eating 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. That’s about half a teaspoon more than the Dietary Guidelines suggest! 

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that our sodium intake is off the charts. We live in a warp-speed society, with plenty of fast food, hulking servings at restaurants, and processed quick-grab foods to sustain our busy lives. What are we really eating? Restaurant meals with a two-day supply of sodium. A singular deli sandwich that packs an entire day’s sodium in a neat little package. It’s shocking, but in all honesty, we’re all doing it, and probably not even noticing. 

Taking Control of Your Sodium
Though a lot of the sodium you eat isn’t shaken on by you (only about 6 percent of sodium is from that you add while eating), that’s no excuse not to take on some accountability for lowering your sodium intake while the government works out solutions to trim it from processed and packaged foods. There’s actually a lot you can do to reduce your sodium intake; read on for a few ideas:

Shake the shaking.  Obviously, the most common why (and one of the easiest) to cut back on salt is to refrain from dousing it over your meal.  It’s surprising how many people still keep a shaker on the table, or salt food even before they taste it.  If you crave more flavor, try other low-sodium alternatives like fresh, chopped herbs. 

Think: there’s no place like home.  Meals out almost always have more sodium than you bargain for, so it’s best to try to curtail your restaurant habit to an occasional occurrence. Eating in can save you hundreds of milligrams of sodium. So, plan ahead to have basic ingredients on hand for meals in a pinch.  If you’re equipped with a few essentials, it’s less tempting to relent and go to a restaurant (or do takeout).

Tame your toppings. Condiments like sauces, dressings and marinades are usually swimming in sodium. Opt for lower-sodium versions, and learn to get by without using so much. After all, typically, a serving of a condiment is a tablespoon or two.   

Drop the packaged. Foods that are packaged and processed are notorious sodium kings. Want mac and cheese? Make it yourself with whole grain pasta, and a light cheese sauce you’ve made from skim milk, 2% cheese and pureed butternut squash (sounds weird, but give it a whirl—it thickens the mix and adds great color as well as nutrition). Craving pizza? Skip the boxed, frozen version and buy a dough ball from the grocery store deli section (or your local pizzeria) and top with crushed low sodium tomatoes, veggies and a smidge of cheese. Keep in mind that foods labeled as “instant” like oatmeal, for example, have added sodium, so stick with the original, non-instant version. 

Choose meats carefully.  Cured meats, like sausages, some ham and bacon—as well as deli meats can be packed with sodium. Try lower sodium deli meats (such as the Boar’s Head All Natural Line—and bonus, the turkey actually tastes like a freshly sliced Thanksgiving turkey) and cut back on cured, salty meats if you haven’t already. And if you are subbing vegetarian versions of your favorites (like vegetarian sausages and hot dogs) beware that they can also be high in sodium, too. 

Go for fresh. When you have the opportunity, choose fresh or frozen veggies over canned. If you have to go with the canned variety, however, rinse them before using. Giving beans, for example, a rinse can reduce 40 percent of the sodium! And instead of leaning on high sodium canned soups and frozen meals, make extra at dinner so you can freeze portions to take out later. Foods like soup are perfect for making intentional leftovers—it freezes beautifully, and when packed properly, tastes the same fresh as it does when it’s thawed.  

Even just a few conscious choices and substitutions can help reduce the amount of sodium you take in every day; little changes can add up to big benefits!