Salt is one of the oldest methods of preserving food, your body needs salt to function properly, and salt certainly makes food taste delicious. But, like almost everything else, too much of a good thing can be bad. I’m experiencing that firsthand at the moment.
You see, in recent months I’ve been dealing with some health issues — vertigo, tinnitus, and ear pain — that my doctor originally attributed to migraines. After trying traditional migraine therapies without improvement, my doctor sent me to a specialist to see if other conditions could be at play.
A trip to an ear, nose, and throat specialist revealed a different cause — Meniere’s Disease, or an accumulation of fluid in the compartments of the inner ear. Treatment of this disease includes a reduction of salt intake, as salt causes water retention (and therefore, a flare-up of symptoms).
To be honest, I laughed when the doctor told me to cut back on sodium in my diet. After all, I eat what I consider to be extremely healthy food.
“Everyone thinks that, and they’re wrong.” he said. “Read labels and log your food. I think you’ll be surprised at how much salt you’re actually eating. It’s everywhere.”
The federal government Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that people ages 14 to 50 consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. For those 51 and older, the recommended amount drops to just 1,500 mg of sodium per day. The American Heart Association (AHA), on the other hand, recommends that nobody exceeds 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
So what does 1,500 mg of sodium look like? About a half teaspoon. Take that measurement out of your kitchen drawer and look at the size — it’s not a lot. It should come as no surprise, then, that the average American consumes more than twice that — 3,400 mg — each day. That’s seven times what the human body needs to function!
Excess salt consumption is linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and other serious health risks. It also causes water retention, which can be a cosmetic pain (ever notice bags under your eyes or struggle to fit into your favorite outfit the morning after a salty meal?). In the case of my recent Meniere’s diagnosis, eating too much salt is like throwing kerosene on a bonfire. Though I do need salt in certain circumstances — sodium is a critical element of sports nutrition and hydration — I need to cut it down as much as possible in my everyday eating.
But, as I’ve discovered, reducing sodium intake is not as easy at simply not salting my food when I cook. Sodium naturally occurs in many foods, but often the amounts are negligible. According to the American Heart Association, only 6 percent of the sodium we consume comes from the salt we add to our food at the table and even less than that — 5 percent — comes from the salt we add when cooking at home.
Still, salt really is everywhere, as my doctor said, and it hides in places you might expect. Before this experience, I would swear up and down that I ate very little packaged food, but the reality is my fresh ingredients are often paired with something from a container: yogurt, store-bought bread, salsa, hummus, wraps, canned beans and tomatoes, salad dressing. Read the label of everything you eat, and you may be surprised to find a high sodium content in “healthy” staples like bread, canned vegetables and beans, broths and stocks, dairy, poultry (which is often “plumped” or “enhanced” with a salt-water solution), deli meats and vegetable juices.
6 Tips for Reducing Your Daily Sodium Intake
Eat in, not out. One of the best ways to control your sodium intake is to simply cook your own food. Restaurant foods, though delicious, are notoriously high in sodium. If you must eat out, try to visit locally-owned restaurants instead of chain establishments — they’re likely to be much more accommodating to your requests for a meal with less salt.
Read the label. I know I sound like a broken record here, but if it comes with a label, read the sodium content. You may be surprised to find your favorite peanut butter has a lot of salt added, or that the reduced-fat yogurt you love has a ton of sodium. I assumed I could add flavor to my food by dumping salsa on everything (it’s just tomatoes and peppers, right?) — until I read the label and realized one serving of my favorite salsa contained more than 10 percent of my daily sodium intake.
Look for low- or no-sodium substitutes. Many products, including soups and stocks, come in low-sodium versions. When packing your lunch, consider swapping out the bread in your sandwich with corn tortillas for a wrap. Buy a no-sodium almond butter instead of your usual salty peanut butter. Look for sodium-free spice blends to use in cooking. Many of these options taste just as good as the original.
Do it yourself. If you can’t find a low- or no-sodium food you like, make it yourself. Since cutting back on my sodium intake, I’ve begun cooking my own dried beans instead of buying canned, dicing up tomatoes and peppers for my own (salt-free!) salsa, making my own tomato sauce and pizza crusts, and whipping up almonds in my BlendTec to make almond butter instead of using the jarred stuff. Up next: Learning how to make my own bread.
Buy in season. When your ingredients are the freshest available, you don’t need salt to bring out flavors. Skip the grocery store and go to your local Farmer’s Market. Construct your meal around the harvest of the day. If you eat meat, Farmer’s Markets are also a great place to find locally-sourced meat that hasn’t been injected with a sodium solution before packaging.
Season without salt. When people complain about low-sodium food being bland, it’s often because the salt was taken out of a dish without adding something to maximize the flavor. Experiment with your favorite recipes to find the perfect replacements: fresh and dried spices, peppers, citrus juice and zest, vinegar, and garlic are all ways to pack a punch sans salt.
Have you been down this salt-free road before? What’s your best tip for those looking to cut down on sodium? —Susan