Salt: No fat. No calories. Not to mention, delicious! What’s not to love? Well, as most of us know, too much salt can be a major contributor to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, or kidney disorders. But our bodies also need a certain amount of salt every day as it is required by all cells to maintain fluid balance, and it is vital for proper nerve and muscle function. And as salt is excreted mainly through urine and sweat, the most intense exercisers need even more of it to maintain a proper balance. So how much salt should we be consuming? Read on to find out how much salt you should consume plus where extra salt gets hidden in food and some tips on how you can reduce your sodium consumption.
How much salt do we need?
While it varies with each person, depending on their age, size, activity level, etc., it is generally agreed that our bodies need about 500 mg of sodium a day for proper functioning. That’s about a quarter of a teaspoon of table salt (sodium chloride, the most typical source of sodium). The federal government recommends a daily maximum of 2,400 mg of sodium. Most of us average about 5,000 mg of sodium per day—10 times as much as our bodies require and more than twice what’s recommended. So unless you’re working out A LOT and excreting excess sodium, you may be getting way more than you need, which can lead to the myriad health problems associated with high blood pressure. The American Medical Association has estimated that a 50 percent reduction in sodium usage in processed and restaurant food could save 150,000 lives every year. But even if you don’t believe in or care about the medical repercussions of excess salt consumption, how about this little tidbit? It is estimated that most of us are carrying around an extra five pounds of water weight, retained simply because of too much salt in our bodies. Drop five pounds of water weight just by passing up the salt shaker? Sounds like a good deal to me!
Where salt hides . . .
But passing up the salt shaker may not be enough. Almost all processed foods contain high levels of sodium. For example, that Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald’s will pump you with almost 1,200 mg of sodium, more than twice what your body needs and half of the government’s daily recommendation. But even if you eschew the burger for its fat and calories, there’s salt in other places too. One cup of Cheerios contains 200 mg of salt, so you’re kicking off your day with 8 percent of your sodium recommendation.Why so much salt? Salt has been used as a preservative for centuries to cure meats and pickle vegetables, among other uses. And while we have developed new preservatives over the years, salt has other advantages as a food additive. It can thicken soups and sauces. It can make breads, cookies, and crackers moister. It can enhance certain flavors like sweet and sour and can mask other flavors, like chemical additives in soft drinks. So even if you’re steering clear of salty treats like pretzels, pickles, and popcorn, you may find you’re getting a fair amount of sodium from food items that don’t even taste salty, if you check labels carefully.
Also, if you tend to purchase a lot of diet or light foods, you may find that they have pretty high sodium levels. By adding extra salt, manufacturers can make food taste better yet still advertise them as low-calorie, low-fat products. Extra salt can also be snuck in the ingredient list under different names, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium caseinate, trisodium phosphate, sodium ascorbate, or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). So even if salt isn’t in the ingredient list or spread out over the ingredient list under different names, it’s worth checking the overall sodium content on the nutrition label to determine the total sodium content. And don’t forget to take the serving size into account. Many food manufacturers will say that their product contains several tiny servings of salt instead of a couple of regular servings to minimize the less savory elements of the product’s nutritional profile.
How to avoid the salt traps
Shake the shaker. How many times have you seen yourself or someone you know be served a plate of food and mindlessly begin salting it, before even tasting it? I know I’ve been guilty of it. I love salt and can think of few meals that couldn’t be improved by adding salt. But at least taste your food first before you add salt—especially in restaurants, where for top chefs to fast-food flippers, salt is often the secret ingredient, and adding more of it is probably unnecessary. If you do think it needs a little salt, shake a little salt into the palm of your hand, so you can at least eyeball the amount you’re going to eat (not to mention that it’ll save your dish from the old unscrew-the-top-of-the-salt-shaker prank). At home, think about dumping the salt shaker and switching to a saltcellar. A saltcellar is a little covered bowl that holds salt. That way you can visually measure a little pinch and not shake out an unknown amount over your food. You might also consider switching to sea salt, or for the gourmets, one of the fancier fleur de sel products on the market. Sea salts generally contain trace amounts of minerals like iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and/or zinc. This doesn’t boost the nutritional profile of sea salt (try nutritionals like ActiVit or Core Cal-Mag for effective mineral supplementation), but it offers a more complex flavor so that less may taste like more.
Take processed meats out of the process. And I’m devastated to say, this includes bacon. Just two delicious slices contain about 400 mg of sodium. One beef hot dog contains 600 mg of sodium (a quarter of the recommended allotment) and a turkey dog is only a little better at 500 mg. One slice of bologna gets you about 300 mg. Most turkey breast lunch meat is as bad as bologna. And if it’s labeled smoked, oven-roasted, mesquite, etc., it’s usually code for extra salty. Try looking for the low-sodium varieties or save money by roasting your own whole turkey breast, so you can control the salt content.Soup’s off. Soup is a great low-calorie meal or snack. Unless it’s a creamy variety, it’s usually low in fat and a good vegetable delivery system. But watch out for the salt content! One cup of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup contains 1,780 mg of sodium. That’s almost three-quarters of your daily allowance. Their Healthy Request version is better. A cup of that has 940 mg of sodium. You might think about making your own chicken broth from scratch using fresh vegetables for flavor instead of salt. Make a big batch and freeze or can it for later.
Freeze out the frozen dinner. Men’s Health magazine recently published a survey about some of America’s saltiest foods and found that Swanson’s Hungry Man XXL Roasted Carved Turkey packed in a whopping 4,480 mg of sodium. That’s approaching 2 days’ worth. It also has 1,360 calories and 70 grams (more than a day’s worth) of fat, so there’re plenty of reasons not to eat this dish. But several of the lean frozen meals on the market also contain high levels of sodium to make up for the lack of fat or sugar for flavor. And frozen pizza? Fuhgeddaboutit! Two slices of pepperoni will run you about 1,000 mg of sodium.Can the canned vegetables. Or at least the ones that aren’t low-sodium. Manufacturers add as much as 1,200 mg of salt to a can of vegetables for flavor and preservation. Try buying no-salt-added varieties or frozen veggies, which usually have less salt. Or at the very least, make sure to drain the canned veggies well and rinse them in water to try to get some of the salt out.
The usual suspects. I won’t even bother depressing you with how much salt the fast food restaurants put in their food, even the healthier ones. I found out that a single flame-grilled chicken breast from my much-loved El Pollo Loco has 617 mg of sodium. Adding up the sodium from my sides of pinto beans, mashed potatoes, and trips to the salsa bar, and my “heart-healthy” grilled chicken meal has racked up over 3,300 mg of sodium. No wonder I have dry mouth all night when I eat there.
No salt? No problem.
So the most important thing to do is check the labels of everything you eat and make sure you’re not getting more salt than you bargained for—or as I call it, committing to a life of bland, joyless eating. But, with a little ingenuity, you can find ways to replace salt with other flavors or at least maximize the enjoyment of the salt you do allow yourself. It’s also important to remember that as you start to remove salt from your diet, your palate may miss it a lot at first, but if you stick with it, you’ll be amazed how much better food starts to taste as you get the salt monkey off your back. Here are some ideas for replacing salt with flavor.Herbs. And let me say for the record, I know every article about sodium talks about Mrs. Dash, but I don’t think it tastes very good. I’d much rather have fresh herbs, either from my local farmers’ market or my balcony garden. With herbs like basil, rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives, etc., I chop a bunch of my favorites on Sunday and keep them in a zip-lock bag in my fridge for when I want to sprinkle a little flavor on something. Fresh herbs give foods a lot of zing, and it’s fun to experiment with different flavor combinations. Some of the herbs even have their own beneficial properties.
Heat. As much of a salt addict as I am, I’m even more of a hot tooth. And the good news about that is that most spicy peppers and hot sauces are actually good for you, or at the very worst not bad for you. Some hot sauces add too much salt, so it’s label-reading time again, and the peck of pickled peppers are better left to Peter of the rhyme. Besides, once you start enjoying chopped fresh (not pickled) jalapeños, you’ll wonder why you ever liked those salty old pickles. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a Penzey’s or a similar spice specialty store, they are a great resource for coming up with salt-free seasonings, rubs, and exotic paprikas and curries to give your dishes flavor without a side of hypertension. Another tip while you’re weaning yourself off the salty stuff is to make your own seasoned salt blend. Mix a batch with a small amount of salt plus a combination of your favorite herbs and spices. Every time you make a new batch, decrease the ratio of salt to spice a little until, one fine day, you’re not including any salt at all. It’s like a nicotine patch for saltaholics.Citrus. While your taste buds devoted to salt may be crying foul, you can delight the sour part of your palate by adding more tart flavors to your food. I’m a big fan of those little plastic lemons and limes (Sicilia is a good brand) full of juice that you can keep in your fridge for a little squeeze of flavor when you don’t feel like chopping up the whole fruit. I avoid the reconstituted juices though—they taste a little funky to me. Think about what other veggies, sauces, or dishes could benefit from a little bit of juice. I love lemon juice on rice or couscous. It makes me totally forget about high-sodium soy sauce.
Other condiments. Other good options from the condiment aisle include mustard, vinegar, and no-salt-added ketchup to make your sandwiches perk up when you’re using low-sodium lunch meat and bread (yep, you gotta check the bread labels too). You can get out the blender and make your own spreads by grinding up ingredients like roasted red peppers (low-sodium variety, of course), chickpeas for hummus, or whatever other foods your imagination can come up with. Who needs the salt?
by Joe Wilkes