Humans have relied on salt for thousands of years. Throughout history, it has been used for everything from currency to preserving foods. In fact, the history of salt runs so far back that the word “salad” comes from the ancient Romans, who would salt leafy vegetables. Salt is actually the name for the chemical compound sodium chloride. Sodium is very important in our diet as it helps to maintain water and mineral balances, as well as blood volume in our bodies. But, as is often the case, too much of a good thing can have a negative effect on your health. When people consume too much sodium, it increases their risk for high blood pressure, which contributes to heart disease and stroke.
So how much salt is too much? According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American consumes upwards of 3,400 milligrams of sodium on a daily basis. That average is well above the recommended intake, which is 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To put the recommended intake into perspective, imagine 1 teaspoon of table salt: that amount of salt is just about 2,300 milligrams of sodium.
The main sources of sodium in our diets are salt added during cooking and processing and the sodium that naturally exists in food. Once you are aware of these sources, it becomes much easier to begin decreasing your intake. For example, when cooking, try to use more fresh herbs and spices to season your foods. Often times, we forget about all the other flavors out there other than “salty.” Consider trying to season foods with fresh rosemary, cilantro, basil, thyme, sage, oregano or chives. Here is an idea: try to marinate chicken and meats in citrus juice, citrus zest and flavored vinegars – no salt needed. Make it your goal to find flavors you enjoy enough that you can take the salt shaker off the table for good. For recipe ideas, check out the American Heart Association website.
But what about the sodium found in processed foods? We’re often in a rush and many of our go-to, quick snacks are high in sodium. Even some foods that we consider to be healthy snacks, such as nuts, can be very high in sodium. The trick is to look for lower salt options, such as unsalted nuts or pretzels. Even better, look for easy to carry, fresh foods including fruit and cut-up vegetables.
Although fresh is always best, here are some tips to keep in mind when shopping for processed foods:
- “Natural” does not mean low sodium. Natural means no synthetic ingredients, such as flavors, colors or preservatives. Salt and sodium are considered natural.
- Look for labels that say “low sodium,” “very low sodium” or “sodium-free.” “Reduced sodium” means the food contains at least 25% less sodium than the company’s standard product.
- Read the nutrition facts panel on pre-packaged foods. Compare different items and brans and try to choose foods with lower sodium levels.
- Avoid processed meats such as ham, sausage, hot dogs and luncheon or deli meats.
- Choose fresh, frozen or canned vegetables without added salt.
- Cook and eat at home. You’ll save both your wallet and your health. Restaurant items are not only pricey, but you can also quickly exceed your daily sodium allotment.
- Before dining out, do your research. Visit restaurant websites, which often provide the sodium content of each dish. Alternatively, you can request the dish to be prepared without added salt and request sauces or dressings on the side, since they are often high in sodium.
Make sure to check out all the fresh options in the Plaza Café including fruits, vegetables and salads. You will be able to find meals you can customize to limit your sodium intake without losing any flavor. It won’t be long before you find yourself commenting that all your old favorite frozen meals and pre-packaged snacks are way too salty!
This post was originally published in the RD Blog. You can visit the RD Blog and see its archives if you have a UW Medicine ID.