Most of us probably eat more salt than we should. It’s hard not to; processed and convenience foods, fast foods, and the salty snacks that we love are all packed with sodium.
Too much sodium can cause us to retain fluids and end up with higher blood pressure – which can lead to heart disease and stroke. But if you don’t have any of those problems, you’re free to eat as much salt as you want, right?
Not necessarily. Earlier this year, the federal government released new dietary guidelines that recommend many of us eat less salt.
The new rules suggest a daily salt intake of 1,500 milligrams per day for anyone who is 51 and older and all black persons, in addition to anyone who has already been diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. That is just a bit over a half-teaspoon or about the amount in many frozen dinners. Everyone else is supposed to take in just 2,300 milligrams daily, or about a teaspoon.
Since the average American now takes in about 3,400 milligrams of sodium, it would do us all good to review some ways to reduce salt in our daily diet:
Recognize how much sodium you’re eating: For a few days, note the sodium content of as much of your daily diet as you can. Does the total surprise you?
Cook from scratch: This is obvious, but if you start with raw foods, you retain total control over the amount of sodium you use. Fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables naturally contain little sodium; fresh and dried herbs, chills and fresh-squeezed citrus juice can punch up flavor in place of salt.
Read labels: Sodium is often hidden in ingredient lists, and there can be a wide variation in sodium content for any given food, even seemingly innocuous foods like bread or pasta. In addition to plain salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium phosphate, and sodium nitrate are common ingredients that can lead to higher sodium levels.
Understand salt-free vs. low sodium vs. “lite.” Lots of products advertise their sodium content, but are careful. Sodium-free means each serving has 5 mg. of sodium or less. Very low sodium products contain 35 mg or less. Low sodium products can contain as much as 140 mg of sodium. However, reduced-sodium products or even “light” in sodium products are not necessarily all that low in sodium. They simply have a salt content that has been reduced by at least 50 percent from the original product. With some items, like soups, chips13 or frozen meals, these products may still be quite high in sodium.
Season with hard cheeses: Just a pinch of parmesan or other hard, intensely flavored cheese can add a lot of savory flavor; just don’t season with it AND salt.
Switch to coarse-grained kosher salt or sea salt: Kosher and sea salts have the same amount of sodium as regular table salts by weight – but not by volume. So, a teaspoon of coarse salt contains less sodium than fine salt, because the teaspoon contains fewer grains. Some people also find that they naturally use less coarse salt at the table, because they can see and taste the individual grains more easily.
Cut back gradually: You have probably become slowly used to saltier and saltier foods. So, first, reduce the sodium by about one-quarter when you’re cooking. After a few weeks, take away the salt shaker at the table. Once you’re used to that, reduce salt in recipes by another quarter. Eventually, you’ll wonder how you managed to eat all that salt.