How I came to terms with my love affair with salt
I rarely eat dessert because I don’t really like sweet things, but savory and salty foods are another story. French fries are my kryptonite.
I used to joke that I could go the rest of my life without sugar, but salt is my weakness.
Well the joke is now on me. About a year and a half ago, the combination of age and genetics caught up to me and I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. I’ve been writing about health for long enough to know that people with hypertension need to eat a low salt diet. There are a myriad of studies that show the positive effects of a low sodium diet on blood pressure.
My fondness for salt is hardly unique, according to Cardiologist Lawrence McAuliffe, MD, at Cape Cod Healthcare Cardiovascular Center in Hyannis.
“Americans consume too much salt, both voluntarily by taking the salt shaker and sprinkling it all over their food and involuntarily from prepared foods,” he said. “Reducing both passive salt in prepared foods and active salt by adding it at the table has a beneficial effect on lowering blood pressure. It’s important because blood pressure is a common denominator for stroke, heart attack and kidney failure.”
Ways to Cut Down
Dr. McAuliffe recommends that his patients do the following things to reduce sodium:
- Don’t salt your food while cooking or at the table.
- Buy fresh organic foods that don’t have any salt additives.
- Read labels so you know how much salt you are actually ingesting.
- Use herbs and spices to flavor food in place of salt.
My husband and I were actually already doing most of those things. We always shop the perimeter of the store and only hit the middle aisles for things like coffee, rice, dried beans, olive oil and cleaning products. There are whole aisles of our local supermarket that we never even enter.
Thanks to a Cape Cod Health News story that I wrote a few years ago, I already knew who at least some of the bad players were in the grocery store. Frozen food (aside from vegetables), deli meats, canned goods and anything pre-prepared are all things we completely avoid. In addition to cooking everything from scratch, we also make our own homemade stock for sauces and soups, so there is no added salt in that.
We do lightly season foods while cooking them but we don’t have a salt shaker on the table. We grow fresh herbs in our backyard garden in the summer and in pots in the house in the winter. I buy things like salt-free Zanzibar curry powder, Chinese five spice and the mushroom-based herbs duxelle by mail order from Savory Spice in Franklin, Tennessee.
But as careful as we thought we were being, there were still plenty of things that we were missing. When my doctor recommended no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, it didn’t take me long to figure out how difficult that was going to be. The day she advised that number, my husband texted me to ask me to pick up some hot Italian sausage for dinner. When I looked at the label, I realized that just one small Italian sausage had 560 milligrams of salt.
I wasn’t going to use up a third of my daily allotment on one sausage, especially when I don’t even like them that much. Once you have a dietary restriction, you start to pay attention to what you actually love versus what you just automatically eat.
Keep a Food Diary
One of the best ways to reduce the sodium in your diet is to keep a food diary for a week. That gives you a clear-cut idea of what things you can eat and what things you should avoid. On any typical day, I found it wasn’t terribly hard to keep the sodium under 1,500 milligrams. The trick was doing it day after day. It reminded me of making sure to walk 10,000 steps a day. When you achieve that goal by the end of the day, you feel great. Then you realize you have to do it all over again tomorrow. A heart-healthy life isn’t a sprint. It’s more like a lifelong marathon.
One of the complications with the new diet plan was my husband’s resistance. He’s a chef and chefs love to season their food. He kept saying that we already do a great job with the sodium. “Better than most people,” was his mantra. “Not good enough,” was mine.
Mostly he was resisting giving up the favorite dishes we ate that were not as low in sodium. For example, he loves to make homemade kimchi to use in kimchi fried rice. He also digs his own clams. One of his specialties is linguini with white clam sauce.
While I’ll occasionally indulge in the linguini because it’s one of my favorite things he makes, the fried rice is completely off the table. One tablespoon of fish sauce has 1181 milligrams of sodium and the same amount of low-sodium soy sauce has 710 milligrams.
I suspect that most people who are forced to restrict their sodium spend at least a little while bemoaning the things they love that they must give up. I sure did. Cheese and crackers used to be a go-to snack. Not anymore. Pasta puttanesca with its delicious smattering of capers and olives isn’t a good idea either. Neither is a BLT. While looking at a food magazine devoted to Super Bowl recipes, I realized that I shouldn’t eat any of those ooey, gooey, saucy cheesy foods.
When you are trying to restrict the amount of sodium you consume, reading labels is a necessity. So is comparing products. One can of artichokes packed in water can have almost twice the amount of sodium as the next can on the shelf. Even salt has different sodium levels. Diamond Crystal Kosher salt has 280 milligrams of sodium in one-quarter of a teaspoon. The same amount of Morton Kosher salt has 480 milligrams.
The words low-sodium on a label is practically meaningless in terms of actual sodium. All it means is that there is 25 percent less sodium. If the food is already high in sodium, a 25 percent reduction isn’t going to be a big help. When my stepfather offered to bring over a bowl of ham and bean soup he made, he promised the ham was low-sodium. A quick internet search revealed one serving of that ham still has close to 600 milligrams of sodium.
It can feel a little overwhelming to change your lifestyle and eating patterns this way, which brings me to another tip that Dr. McAuliffe suggests to his patients: develop a new repertoire of dishes to cook. Most people cook pretty close to the same meals each week, he said. They generally rotate among seven to 10 tried and true recipes. Adding the American Heart Association Low-Salt Cookbook to your cookbook shelf can help. It has some great recipes that are both low-sodium and delicious.
The good news is that taste buds adjust and your palate changes. We recently went out to a diner for breakfast (prior to the recent quarantine). I ordered an egg dish that came with home fries. The home fries were so noticeably salty that they didn’t even taste good to me anymore. I left them on the plate.