Your salt shaker may not be the culprit
Most primary care physicians and cardiologists encourage their patients to cut back on salt, in order to attain optimum cardiovascular health. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Salt is hidden in all kinds of foods in the grocery store and most people are unaware of how much salt they actually eat.
Amy Rose Sager, dietician for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod, has been visiting patients’ homes for 10 years, so she has a lot of experience with helping people figure out how to lower sodium in their diet. Many people will say they haven’t been cooking with salt for years, but that isn’t enough, according to Sager.
“I go through their cupboards and find all these hidden forms of salt,” she said. “They would have been better off cooking with a little salt sometimes than using processed foods with hidden forms. That’s where I find most people are getting their salt. It’s not the salt shaker.”
With that in mind, new federal guidelines are aimed at lowering the recommended daily intake of sodium to 2,300 milligrams a day, which is about the amount of one teaspoon of salt. To help people understand how much sodium is in a particular food, food manufacturers will begin labeling the sodium as a percentage of the daily recommended amount by the middle of this year, with all companies expected to comply by January 2021.
Sager, who also owns Leap into Wellness, a health and nutrition business, reads labels in a different way than most people. She compares the sodium level to the calories. The closer the numbers are, the lower the sodium. When the sodium level is a lot higher than the calorie count, it indicates a high concentration of sodium. She used diet soda as an example. It has zero calories, but 40 milligrams of sodium.
“To me that’s very concentrated,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t realize that things like diet soda can add up, if they are drinking a lot of it.”
Marinara sauce in a jar is another good example. The serving size is 1/2 cup, which has 100 calories and 460 milligrams of sodium for an average brand.
The words “reduced sodium” usually only means that the sodium has been reduced by 25 percent. Depending on the food, it can still be higher in sodium than you need. Canned foods are notoriously salty, so Sager recommends rinsing canned beans like garbanzos before using them. Rinsing cuts the sodium by 40 percent.
Salt Where You Least Expect It
One of the biggest dangers of excess sodium is that it raises blood pressure and high blood pressure raises the risk for heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.
“The problem is the kidneys can’t always eliminate the excess sodium from your body,” Sager said. “The body requires sodium and potassium to pull water across the blood stream into the kidneys. Too much causes them to reduce their function of removing the water. Then you have high blood pressure. It can also cause kidney stones and we also know that too much sodium affects bone health.”
Canned soup is especially problematic because one can is labeled two and a half servings. That means you have to do the math to figure out how much sodium you’re getting because it depends on how much you eat. One serving is a half a cup of soup, but how many people actually just eat one half of a cup?
Anything pickled, brined or loaded with cheese is going to have high sodium content, Sager said. Cream soups like clam chowder and cream of broccoli soup are also problematic, as are frozen dinners and deli meats.
Even things that taste sweet can in fact be quite salty. The syrups in milk shakes or fancy coffee drinks can add a walloping 700 milligrams of sodium in one drink. The same goes for a sliver of frozen pie.
Dining out offers other opportunities to unwittingly ingest too much sodium. Most chain restaurants are notorious for their sodium because they use processed food, but even stand-alone restaurants can have a chef with a heavy hand with the salt. Cream sauces, cheesy dishes, salad dressings and anything with bacon are all going to be on the salty side. Ask for sauces, dressings and condiments to be served on the side so you can control how much you eat. Less is always better.
“When people go out more often, they don’t realize that they are picking up excess sodium,” Sager said. “The good majority of processed foods are too salty. The best thing to do is incorporate more foods in their natural state.”
That doesn’t mean that you should never go out. If you have plans for dinner in a restaurant, you can adjust your sodium consumption down for the rest of the day, she said.