Salt: No fat. No calories. Not to mention it’s 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, because it’s required by all cells to maintain fluid balance and it’s vital for proper nerve and muscle function. And because 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 how much salt we need on a daily basis varies with each person, depending on age, size, activity level, etc., it’s generally agreed that our bodies each need about 500 milligrams of sodium a day to function properly. 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 milligrams of sodium. Most of us average about 5,000 milligrams of sodium per day—10 times as much as our bodies require and more than twice the recommended maximum. 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’s estimated that most of us are carrying around an extra 5 pounds of water weight, retained simply because of the excess salt in our bodies. Drop 5 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 full of almost 1,200 milligrams of sodium, more than twice what your body needs and half of the government’s daily recommended maximum. 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 milligrams of salt, so you’re kicking off your day with 8 percent of your recommended sodium allotment.
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’ve 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 more moist. It can enhance certain flavors (like sweet and sour) and mask other tastes, like the chemical additives in soft drinks. So even if you’re steering clear of salty treats like pretzels, pickles, and popcorn, if you check your labels carefully you may find you’re getting a fair amount of sodium from food items that don’t even taste salty.
Also, if you tend to purchase a lot of foods labeled “diet” or “light,” you may find that they have pretty high sodium levels. Adding extra salt can make food taste better while still allowing them to be advertised as low-calorie, low-fat products. Manufacturers can also sneak extra salt into the ingredient list under different names, like 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 is spread out throughout 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, which may make less taste like more.
Take processed meats out of the process. I’m devastated to say that this includes bacon. Just two delicious slices contain about 400 milligrams of sodium. One beef hot dog contains 600 milligrams of sodium (a quarter of the recommended daily allotment) and a turkey dog is only a little less salty, at 500 milligrams. One slice of bologna gets you about 300 milligrams of sodium. Most turkey breast lunch meat is as salt-heavy as bologna. And if it’s labeled “smoked,” “oven-roasted,” “mesquite-flavored,” etc., it’s usually code for “extra salty.” Try looking for 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 milligrams of sodium. That’s almost three-quarters of your recommended daily maximum. Their Healthy Request® version is better. A cup of that has 940 milligrams 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 it 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® Hungry-Man® XXL Roasted Carved Turkey packed a whopping 4,480 milligrams of sodium. That’s approaching 2 days’ worth of the maximum recommended allowance. 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 milligrams of sodium.
Can the canned vegetables. Or at least the ones that aren’t low-sodium. Manufacturers add as much as 1,200 milligrams 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 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 milligrams 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 milligrams 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 your 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 here 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 Penzeys® or a similar spice specialty store, they’re 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 by combining a small amount of salt with a variety of your favorite herbs and spices. Every time you make a new batch, decrease the ratio of salt to spice more and more, until one fine day you’re not including any salt at all. It’s like a nicotine patch for saltaholics.
Citrus. While your salt-loving taste buds 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?