Are You Eating Too Much Salt?
“No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause,” espoused Theodore Roosevelt.
But what if that quote was flipped and it was the salt that was causing a risk to well-being, body and life? For those who consume too much salt it may well be true.
What Is Salt?
Chemically, salt is a crystalline compound made of sodium and chloride and either occurs naturally as in a salt mine or is the product of a neutralization process wherein an acid is mixed with a base to produce either water or salt.
Although there are some opinions to the contrary, others believe that the idiom “worth his salt” can be traced back to Roman times when it was believed that soldiers were sometimes paid with an allotment of salt. Further bolstering this controversial use of salt, is the fact that the word “salary” has its roots in the Latin word “salarium,” which is purported to be the name of the soldiers’ salt ration.
Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of salt is cooking and food but, the Salt Association claims that salt has 14,000 everyday uses and is utilized in the manufacture of items such as plastics, textiles and computer components, to name just a few.
Not only used for flavoring food, salt was used for thousands of years to preserve food that would have otherwise gone bad, lengthening the time it could be stored for later consumption.
Effects of Too Much in the Body
Salt maintains fluid levels in the body and a balance of fluid and sodium is critical for a healthy heart, liver and kidneys. Sodium regulates blood fluid and prevents low blood pressure.
Eating too much sodium—whether from the salt-shaker or from processed foods—has been implicated in a myriad of health problems, including kidney disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, which may eventually lead to cardiovascular disease and stroke. Excess sodium also has been shown to overstimulate the immune system and may be linked to autoimmune disorders such as allergies, lupus, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses.
A glut of sodium in the blood causes the body to flood the bloodstream with water, creating more blood volume in the blood vessels. More blood flow means higher blood pressure. The American Heart Association (AHA) explains that over time, this increase in blood volume can stretch or injure arteries and can speed up plaque build-up which can eventually hamper blood flow. The increase in pressure also taxes the heart, making it more difficult to pump blood throughout the body.
How Much Sodium Do We Eat?
Salt is 40% sodium and 60% chloride, by weight. One teaspoon of salt has 2,300 micrograms of sodium. Most of the sodium we eat comes from prepared, packaged and restaurant foods—about 77%—while the remainder is either naturally occurring in the food we eat or added when cooking or eating. Because the bulk of the salt we eat is already added to most of the food we eat, sometimes it is difficult to be aware of how much salt we are actually eating.
According to the AHA, Americans eat more than 3,400 milligrams of salt per day. They recommend no more than 2,400 milligrams per day and ideally, for an adult, only 1,500 milligrams per day. The AHA also asserts that Americans’ diets are so salty, even cutting back to 2,400 milligrams per day could have huge benefits and could translate to an improvement in heart health and blood pressure.
How Do I Cut Back?
The best way to get an idea of how much salt you are consuming per day is to read food labels. It is easy to see if the product contains salt if the label includes the word “salt,” “soda” or “sodium.” But salt can also have more complicated names. Watch out for common ingredients that contain salt such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate, sodium phosphate, sodium citrate, sodium nitrate and fluer de sel.
AHA also cautions against excessive amounts of the “Salty Six,” the top six sources of sodium in U.S. diets. They are:
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
The AHA’s #BreakUpWithSalt Sodium Reduction Initiative offers some comprehensive tips on how to curb your salt consumption.
At the grocery store:
- Compare labels. Before just throwing the item you usually buy in your cart, compare the labels of different brands. Sodium content varies from brand to brand. Always choose the one with the least amount of sodium.
- Get picky about poultry. Some brands are injected with a sodium solution. Read the fine print on packaging and avoid those that include “broth,” “saline” or “sodium solution.”
- Scrutinize the sauces. Products like soy sauce, salad dressing, salsa, dips, ketchup and mustard can have ridiculously high sodium levels. Products like pickles, relish and olives can as well. Look for low-sodium alternatives and choose them instead.
- Check out the cans. Canned vegetables and soups can have very high sodium levels. Look for low- or no-sodium options.
- Put the deep freeze on frozen foods. Frozen vegetables sometimes include salty sauces and frozen French fries are sometimes made with salty seasonings. Always choose plain, frozen vegetables and fries.
- Find flavor elsewhere. Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, flavor dishes with ingredients that impart a flavor all their own: garlic, onions, herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars are just a few to try.
- Rinse it off. If using canned vegetables or beans, rinse and drain them before adding to the rest of the ingredients. This could cut sodium up to 40%.
- Mix low- or no-salt ingredients with regular ingredients. If your taste buds miss the salty flavor at first, try mixing low-salt and regular products in equal amounts so you are not going totally cold turkey. Even using half of the amount of a low-salt product is more beneficial than using the full amount of a regular ingredient. Using this method, you might not even notice a difference in the taste.
- Skip the salt. When cooking, rice, hot cereals or pasta, skip the added salt specified in the directions. Chances are you are adding additional ingredients to these dishes after they are cooked so you won’t miss the minimal amount of salt you were directed to add.
- Pump up the potassium. Because potassium can counteract the effects of sodium and also may help to lower blood pressure, add foods high in potassium to your diet. Things like bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, greens, white beans, kidney beans, and tomatoes all are high in potassium.
When dining out:
- Special request. Simply ask for your food to prepared with no extra salt.
- Take a taste. Taste your food first before adding salt. Also, consider using a squeeze of lemon or lime or freshly ground black pepper as a way to boost flavor instead of using salt.
- Be on the lookout. Watch for dishes described with the words “pickled,” brined,” “barbecued,” “cured” or “smoked” or those cooked or served with au jus, broth, miso, soy sauce or teriyaki sauce as those are earmarks of dishes with high sodium levels. Dishes that are prepared by steaming, poaching, grilling, roasting or baking may be lower in salt.
- Skimp on the size. Portion control can equal sodium control. Eating half of an entrée means that you are eating half of the sodium. Consider sharing a meal with your dining partner or asking for a to-go box and boxing up half of your meal even before starting to eat.
- Be a stickler. Ask about the sodium content in dishes before you place your order. Although the information might not be available at every restaurant, a law passed in 2015 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide nutrition information—including sodium content—to patrons upon request. Many chain restaurants offer nutrition information on their websites so you can scout out the sodium content of dishes you are interested in ordering before you even leave for the restaurant.
Cutting down on sodium intake can be daunting since extra sodium is found in such a wide range of and in so many different products. Even if you choose only two or three of the tips above and follow them consistently, you will make a dent in your sodium intake. Even a small one can make a difference.