In the old days, salt was essential for preserving food. Today, salt is used in abundance to give food taste and if you’ve ever tried a low-salt version of a canned soup or vegetables you certainly know there’s a difference.
For many of us, salt-laden meals and snacks are pretty much the norm, so it’s little surprise that the average American consumes nearly twice the daily recommended amount of sodium.
Why do we need sodium?
Sodium is essential for our bodies to function properly; it helps us maintain fluid balance and supports transmission of nerve impulses that make our muscles contract and relax. Our body cannot produce sodium on its own so we need to get it from foods and drinks, but the truth is we don’t need very much of it each day.
According to the government’s dietary guidelines, people ages 14 and over should consume no more than 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon) of sodium per day. For older adults and those with kidney disease, hypertension, or diabetes, the limit is actually lower -- 1,400 milligrams (slightly more than ½ teaspoon) sodium per day. The shocker is that most Americans are getting nearly 4,000 mg of sodium daily.
The culprits that really bump up our salt intake may actually surprise you. Let’s start with breakfast cereals. Most people check calories, fat, fiber, and maybe protein before choosing a cereal. Starting now, please look at the sodium content, too. Even the best-known whole grain cereals can be salt-laden landmines. One famously healthy brand packs a whopping 580mg sodium per cup! Another notoriously heavy source of sodium is lunch meat. Just three ounces of deli turkey or salami has upwards of 810 mg or 1,200 mg respectively.
You might think salty condiments like ketchup and soy sauce are great offenders, when in truth they really aren’t unless you use them in excess on a daily basis. Actually it’s other mainstays in our diet that cause sodium overload, such as diet soda (~90mg sodium per 24 ounces), cottage cheese (400mg sodium per ½ cup serving), peanut butter (150 mg sodium per 2 tablespoons), salad dressings (~250-300 per 2 tbsp. serving), and tomato sauce (~670 mg per ½ cup serving).
Where does all that sodium come from?
Take a closer look at the nutrition labels on packaged foods you’ll see that most are packed with sodium. That’s because manufacturers process food with salt to boost flavor inexpensively and to cover the unpleasant taste of artificial ingredients. Processed and restaurant foods are the primary source of the salt Americans consume — accounting for nearly 77 percent of the sodium we get in our diet. The truth is that many of the foods in your pantry and refrigerator are probably loaded with sodium, such as bread, tomato sauce, deli meats, cereal, cottage cheese, and canned soups and vegetables. Only 12 percent of the sodium we get is naturally occurring in foods and only five percent comes from salt used in home cooking.
What’s the best way to regulate intake?
To stay within the recommended 2,300mg of sodium per day, figure on about 800mg of sodium per-meal and skip those super-salty snacks like pretzels and nachos. Read nutrition labels to determine how much salt is in a serving. Low-sodium foods contain less than 140mg per serving. Moderate-sodium foods contain less than 400 mg per serving, and high-sodium foods contain more than 400mg sodium per serving. As a matter of habit, stick with foods in the low or moderate-sodium group and try to limit foods from the high-sodium group. And opt for fresh foods over processed foods. Preparing meals at home is a great way to take control of your sodium intake — you’ll know exactly how much salt is going into your dish.
Opting for low-sodium alternatives is a great way to cut back too. You needn’t compromise on taste if you use salt-free seasonings such as Mrs. Dash, Magic, and other fresh herbs and spices. Also, salt substitutes such as Nu-Salt and No Salt can keep the “salt” shaker in your hand without adding any true sodium to your plate.
Not sure where to start? Here are five easy ways to reduce sodium intake:
- Ditch the salt shaker when cooking and opt for fresh herbs, salt free seasonings, or salt substitutes instead.
- Become an avid label reader. Be aware of the sodium content in your daily foods. If any qualify as high sodium, opt for lower sodium alternatives.
- Cook at home. Cooking instead of buying pre-made meals will almost always guarantee lower sodium in your food.
- Indulge in high sodium foods sparingly. Save that pasta Bolognese, pizza, and hot dog for special occasions – and really enjoy them as treats.
- Always opt for fresh or frozen fruits and veggies over canned. Unless the can states, “no salt added” you can be sure that your foods is going to be loaded with salt.