Salt—we need it, but not too much! When adding salt, we have to walk a fine line between making foods more palatable and overdoing it at the possible expense of our health.
I was recently asked if sea salt is good for you. The simple answer is “no more so than the regular kind.” Grain for grain, sea salt has the same sodium content as table salt. Some people claim that sea salt has a more condensed flavor, meaning you can use less of it to get the same taste effect. If that’s true, then I suppose it might be a healthier option. However, you have to keep in mind that intensity of flavor is highly subjective.
Campbell’s has spent millions in development trying to reduce the sodium in their Chicken Noodle Soup. The challenge they face is that salt does more than make their soup taste salty; it also contributes to its silky-smooth mouth feel. Nonetheless, they continue to try to get the salt out.
Salt and hypertension
Dietitians don’t encourage people to limit their salt intake just to make them miserable. Getting too much salt in your diet can contribute to the development of hypertension, or high blood pressure, which boosts your risk of dying of a heart attack or stroke—even more so than smoking. In fact, in 2005, high blood pressure was responsible for one-sixth of all deaths in the United States. By logical extension, then, lowering your salt intake can help reduce your blood pressure along with your risk of heart disease and stroke.
You’re probably at risk!
Some readers out there might be thinking, “Ah, but I don’t have high blood pressure or a family history of it, so I can eat all the salt I like, right?” Well, you might want to think again. Over time, 90 percent of people in this country develop hypertension. Blood pressure naturally rises as you age, especially if you have been eating a high-sodium diet most of your life.
How much is too much?
Okay, so how much salt is enough and how much is too much? Actually, the human body needs only about 500 mg of sodium per day for normal functioning. But as Americans, we (of course) tend to consume way too much—on average 3,400 mg per day. That’s about 1½ teaspoons of salt every day!
The real culprit is sodium, which makes up 40% of the weight of table salt (sodium chloride). The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that we limit our sodium intake to 2300 mg a day and even lower to 1500 mg a day if you already have high blood pressure and heart disease. One teaspoon of salt has about 2300 mg of sodium. It’s helpful to think in terms of teaspoons of salt since that is what we use in cooking and at the table.
Where is all that sodium coming from?
We get most of our sodium from our diet. If comes from restaurant and processed foods—mainly burgers, fries, pizza, soups, gravies, spreads, and salad dressings. Some restaurant menus can have items that contain 4000–8000 mg sodium per serving.
The FDA recently announced they will be issuing voluntary salt reduction guidelines for the food industry. This could—and I hope it does—trigger a major change in sodium intake from processed foods.
Tips for cutting back on salt
Cutting back is tricky. Most people don’t know or realize the amount of “hidden” sodium they consume. Here are some simple tips for reducing your intake:
- Try preparing more food at home, as you can control how much you put in and what products you are using.
- Put the salt shaker away, and avoid salty foods like ham, bacon, chips, frozen foods, deli meats, cheese, olives, and pickles.
- Try using balsamic vinegar in soups, sauces, and vegetables because the vinegar mimics the taste of salt. Lemon juice is good on vegetables in place of salt, too.
- Try herbs/spice blends in place of salt.
- The American Heart Association has an excellent Low-Salt Cookbook.
You owe it to yourself
Following a low-sodium diet can be difficult at first, and making dishes palatable with less salt takes some creativity. However, we learn the taste of salt as kids, so we can unlearn or desensitize ourselves to the taste as adults. It may take four to eight weeks to get accustomed to a low-sodium diet—but then when you do eat something salty, it will be almost inedible to you. Use more fresh veggies, fruits, beans, and grains, and you’ll be halfway there.
Shunning a little salt is a sacrifice worth making for the sake of your health. Drugs have not solved the problems of heart disease and hypertension (salt appears to damage the heart beyond what any drug can “fix”), so cutting back on sodium not only saves lives and dollars, it just makes good sense.
Looking for some delicious ways to go low-salt? Try the recipes in this article:❦