Thursday, October 22, 2009

Drop that salt shaker!

As a future dietician (I don't know that I'll ever get tired of saying this), I'm trying to stay more current on public health issues and am finding great joy in reading these articles. I read this blog this morning and it really got the wheels in my head spinning.

The issue of sodium intake is near and dear to my heart. When my doctor told me I had to lower my blood pressure and lose weight in order to prevent taking blood pressure medicine at the young age of 22, she told me first to lower my sodium intake. Lowering sodium intake is one of the best ways to lower your blood pressure, in addition to losing weight and exercise.

I used to LOVE salt. I don't think I can describe to you how much salt I ate. I not only ate ridiculous amounts of fast food, restaurant food and pre-packaged and processed foods, but I also added salt to all of these things. A few months before my doctor told me to lose weight and to cut back on the salt, I would have swollen ankles almost every single day from all this excess salt. I drank iced tea and cranberry juice on a daily basis to try to flush some of this extra salt out of my body. I never knew exactly what I was doing to myself until my doctor brought light to the issue and I began to learn about the ill effects of sodium and that sodium is added to almost everything you see advertised now.

When my doctor first presented me with some research about losing weight, she encouraged me to try the DASH diet. DASH stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension." This diet is focused ONLY on lowering sodium and lowering blood pressure, not losing weight. If you read information on the diet you will find that while they don't advertise weight loss with this diet, many consumers of the diet plan will lose weight simply because they are changing their eating style to one of fresh foods. On DASH you eat very little processed foods. I find this really interesting because in the previous mentioned blog I read this morning, the basic synopsis of the blog is that the nutritional evidence of lowering sodium in your diet does not match scientific evidence because it is impossible to complete an accurate experiment in the scientific community. Since everyone eats above normal amounts of sodium as it is, researchers are not able to populate a group of low sodium eaters who would provide accurate results. The only way to have a low sodium diet in America today is to follow a plan like the DASH diet that focuses on fresh foods and minimizes processed and pre-packaged foods. Obviously making this drastic change in your diet would provide many health benefits that are not the direct cause of lowering sodium, thus there is no statistical importance in regards to cutting sodium intake.

I believe that lowering sodium in diets starts with the preparers of food to lower the salt. As the Food Politics blog mentions, most of the sodium problem is coming from the foods we eat rather than what we are adding with our salt shakers. Restaurants, fast food establishments and food companies need to start lowering sodium in their products. While it is possible to eat a low sodium diet, the average American will not be able to because a majority of the food they eat is processed and pre-packaged.

Why aren't companies doing this though? Why is there so much added salt to these foods? The basic reasons are flavor and preservatives. Salt has long been used to preserve food and salt is much cheaper than adding other methods of flavor - like fresh spices. You can only do so much to a frozen, boxed or canned meal to keep it tasting "fresh" and edible. Take the salt out of most of these meals and you'll just end up with something bland and non edible and probably won't last as long as the salt helps preserve the food. The other problem is due to the vicious circle of the taste of salt. So, most people eat foods that have been processed or prepared with too much salt. Therefore, when they eat something that is not full of salt, it doesn't have the salt flavor they are accustomed to. Therefore, they feel like they must add salt to the food to regain that taste. How will you ever stop eating so much salt when all the food you eat is loaded in salt?

It was astonishing to me as I started to cut back the salt in my diet because at first it was SO hard. I bought salt substitutes and had to use them for every meal of every day. But slowly as I began consuming less and less salt, my taste for salt disappeared. Salt no longer tasted good to me and now I essentially cook with no salt at all. I will bring casseroles and rice dishes up to work and my coworkers will try them and tell me they need salt. But to me, it tastes perfectly fine! So just re-training your taste buds is a challenge because unless you are like me and prepare most of your own meals, you'll never be able to break the cycle of the taste of salt.

Honestly consuming only 2400 mg of sodium a day is very hard. It's hard even for me most days. I used to shoot for 1500 mg of sodium but that made me very upset and obsessive over everything I was eating and took the joy out of my food. So now I shoot for 2400 mg and most days I'm right around this mark. I made the decision some time ago that lowering my sodium intake to ~2400 mg is acceptable for me but I will definitely be over this limit some days. Pretty much anytime that I have a meal out, I can guarantee I will be over my sodium. But since I don't eat out that often, I have balance in my life and I'm okay with those few days that I am over. I also don't avoid deli meats or cheese like I used to. The occasional turkey sandwich won't kill me. I just have to watch the intake of sodium in my other meals that day. I treat my sodium intake now much like I treat my healthy eating balance - the times when I can eat low sodium or buy the low sodium/no salt added variety, I do. But those times when I can't or decide I want to have something that is high in sodium - I still eat it. For example, I still buy salted butter. But I buy unsalted chicken stock and unsalted canned veggies. I make trade-offs!

Here are a few of my tips for lowering your salt intake.

1. Obviously cut back on the salt shaker. Look to other ingredients to add flavor to your dishes. Invest in a spice rack, fresh herbs or add garlic/onion/lemon zest/etc to your foods. Fresh herbs go much further to add flavor to your meal than the salt shaker does. Start slow, but slowly wean yourself off the salt.

2. Try to avoid eating out as much as possible. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to eat out, look for the options that have the freshest ingredients. Fresh = generally low sodium. Salads, veggies, fresh fruit, yogurt, etc - these are all great options that will be lower sodium.

3. When buying canned and frozen food, look for the no salt added or low sodium options. Also, typically organic foods have lower sodium. If you are buying frozen veggies, avoid the ones with sauce already included. Sauce = full of sodium. As I said before, most processed meals have a lot of salt - so avoid frozen dinners, meals in a box and the processed shelf meals (like those Hormel Compleats). Always read the labels! Your eyes will pop out of your head the first week that you start tracking your sodium. Sodium is hidden in essentially everything. Other than calories, sodium is the #1 thing I look at when reading food labels.  Just check the labels to find out for yourself!

4. Some things naturally have more salt - like deli meats, cheese and broths/soups. So for those items, decide what is important to you and what you can live without. If you can live with a more bland deli meat, buy the low sodium variety. If you don't care which cheese you eat, opt for Swiss as it's naturally low sodium. If you can make your own soups, buy the unsalted stocks (Kitchen Basics has the only line I've ever seen of unsalted stocks.) You will still want to enjoy some foods that are not low sodium, so pick and choose your battles. A reduction anywhere will help!

5. Eat as fresh as you can. The more fresh ingredients you use, the lower sodium your meal will be. If you choose to make your own rice instead of using prepared rice or boxed rice, you can control how much salt you add. Same thing with pasta - if you make your own pasta you can control the amount of salt you add to the water (I use none!). Cook your own meats instead of relying on pre-cooked varieties. Even going from a full fat cheese to a 2% cheese means you are consuming more sodium. Less fat = less flavor = more sodium added to make up for the lack of flavor. Fat free cheese is obviously even worse! Obviously fresh veggies and fruits will be naturally low sodium so add as many of those as you like!

6. Just pay attention! Like I said, just start watching your sodium. You'll be amazed how much you are eating. You'll also be amazed at how much lighter and skinnier you feel without all the extra salt. My ankles and fingers are now super skinny and never bloated! My weight doesn't fluctuate as much on the scale each day and I feel less sluggish each day because of the reduced sodium!

Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions or need help!

1 comment:

  1. great advice! Sodium is always on the top of my list of things to look at when shopping for food and looking at nutritional values. Something I never used to think about, but knowing what I do now about the effects too much salt has I'll always be paying attention to it!