Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise us to use maximum 2,300 mg of sodium on any day, divided between meals. Most of us take regularly much more than that, and if for any reason we need to cut on salt, we take the maximum recommended amount of 2,300 mg, splitting it between three or four meals, and feel good and self-righteous. In fact, according to the Colorado State University report, all we need is 1,500 mg of sodium to fulfill all our daily needs. Getting rid of this bad habit is difficult, but it might cost us our good health.
Diet with too much sodium
It is not salt that can hurt us, but sodium, which composes 40 percent of what we call salt or sodium chloride. The rest is chloride, which is harmless.
The consequences of too much sodium in diet can be serious:
- High blood pressure
- Kidney problems
- Heart failure
- Kidney stones
- Water retention
- Gastric cancer
Small amount of sodium, less than one teaspoon, is necessary for our optimal health. Sodium helps in controlling the blood and tissue fluids volume in our system.
An average adult American consumes 3,100 – 4,700 mg of sodium daily. Women are better, with 2,300 – 3,100 mg of sodium daily, but not because they are prudent, but because they eat less.
More than three quarters of sodium in our diet comes from prepared, frozen and canned meals. Sodium is added to enhance flavor, but mostly to conserve food from spoiling.
Can we have not enough sodium?
Not enough salt in nutrition can be dangerous too, but it is very rare. Serious lack of sodium can lead to muscle cramps, other serious issues and even death. We normally lose sodium through sweat, urine, vomiting and diarrhea. Severe stomach upset with diarrhea and vomiting is the most common way to bring the sodium in our body to a dangerous level.
There is a common belief that we need more salt in our nutrition if we work or exercise and sweat extensively. People believe that muscle cramps are caused by the lack of sodium. The truth is that muscle cramps are caused by dehydration, not lack of sodium. It would take much more serious sweating, such as exercising heavily in hot weather, or hiking in a desert, to seriously get depleted of sodium through sweat.
Americans are not the worst
Australians consume even more sodium than Americans – in fact eight to nine times more than the maximum recommendation. Australian NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Centre) recommends no more than 1,600mg of sodium per day, the amount that we really need. It is much less than 2,300 mg recommended by the American government.
The most common reason for eating too much salt is the habit of the busy Western world of eating mostly prepackaged food. Precooked meals have salt added not only to make them tastier, but to allow them to last longer before spoiling. Salt is in everything, even cookies and cakes. Our habit of having our meals well salted makes us grab a salt shaker even in restaurants, before we even know that the food needs more salt.
We are so used to liberally flavoring our food with salt that we cannot even imagine that there is another way of making dishes tasty. Many Americans tell stories about being yelled at by angry chefs in fancy French restaurants while travelling through France, when asking for salt. Insulted chefs insist that their dishes are perfectly flavored, with just the right amount of spices and herbs, and that they absolutely do not need any salt.
Cutting sodium from diet
Whether you are perfectly healthy or have high blood pressure or some other health issue which requires you to cut on salt, it is a good idea to cut on the amount of sodium in your diet before you are forced to. French chefs, as well as many ethnic cuisines, are pointing us in the right direction: flavorful dishes do not require a lot of salt. Flavor can come from spices, herbs and a mix of diverse ingredients. Play with garlic, pepper, oregano, sage, thyme or rosemary. Go wild with curry, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg or paprika. Marinades do magic to foods. Try marinating with lemon, pineapple or lime juice. Add flavored vinegars and fragrant oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil or walnut oil. Go to the ethnic food stores and ask about different spices and ingredients. They will open the whole new culinary world to you.
Besides spices and herbs, our best source of flavor, as well as sodium, are fresh vegetables and fruits. All of them contain small amount of sodium. For example, one fresh tomato contains 14mg of sodium. Even an apple contains a small amount. Fresh, unprocessed lean meat contains enough sodium to be tasty without added salt.
To get an idea what happens when the food is processed, think of this: one raw potato contains 5 mg of sodium, potato chips 200 mg, package of instant mashed potatoes 485 mg and a package of potato salad whooping 625 mg, almost half of our daily need for sodium.
Know what you eat
The easiest way to take much less sodium in your diet is to cook your meals at home and use fresh ingredients. Meals rich in fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, fresh fish, legumes and whole grains will provide you with enough sodium for your daily needs. Be generous with spices and herbs. They are not only rich in flavor, but each offers specific health benefits.
The link between high blood pressure and sodium is so important that the high blood pressure page on the National Institute for Health contains a whole series of tips on how to lower sodium from your diet. They all can be summed down to: stay away from prepackaged food.
Until the time you are ready to make such drastic changes in your diet, start by learning how to read labels for sodium. You will find that almost everything contain huge amount of sodium, including sweet things. One small cup of chocolate pudding contains 470 mg of sodium. Try not to exceed the amount of sodium than you really need ” “ about 1,500 mg. That should come from all your food items, including fresh fruits and vegetables. If a food item in your grocery store contains more than 600 mg of sodium, leave it on the shelf and look for a low sodium substitute.
If you simply cannot live without that salty flavor, try Reduced Salts or Zero Sodium Salts. They are made of potassium chloride, which tastes a bit like sodium chloride, which is common salt. Since we do not consume enough potassium in our diet, you will kill two birds with one stone. Potassium chloride has a bit of a bitter aftertaste, so look for one with added L-lysine, a common amino acid, which camouflages the bitter taste.
If you have any health issue, particularly high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about the maximum amount of sodium you should consume. If you have to go on a reduced sodium diet, take it as an opportunity to expand your culinary horizons. Become a no salt gourmet.