Ask a nutrition student: Read this with a grain of salt

Stacey Arnold

I never put salt on my food. But my doctor says to limit my sodium intake since my blood pressure has been testing high. What are some other ways to cut back on sodium?

  • —Salty Student

I don’t mean to rub salt in your wounds, but sodium doesn’t just come from table salt — packaged and restaurant foods are some of the worst offenders. 

Sodium is a necessary chemical element that regulates blood pressure and blood volume, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But Americans eat way too much of it.

When sodium is absorbed in the digestive system, it brings water along with it. This is why your jeans and rings feel extra tight after a super salty meal. When you consume an extreme amount of sodium, you retain an extreme amount of water. The extra water in our blood taxes our heart. Over time, this can lead to hypertension, or chronic high blood pressure.

Doctors often suggest a low sodium diet to patients looking to prevent or control high blood pressure, according to Dr. Sheila Heinle, a cardiologist at Baylor College of Medicine. 

“[Sodium] has been aptly dubbed the silent killer since it may go undetected or uncontrolled for years, increasing the risk of heart attack, heart or kidney failure and stroke,” Heinle said. 

Adults should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. This is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. For those who don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, this is the size of a die. 

The average American consumes over 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, and the high intake is not due to a heavy hand on the salt shaker. Packaged and restaurant foods make up to 75 percent of sodium in one’s diet, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers add sodium to processed foods to enhance flavor, mask strange tastes caused by excessive processing, extend shelf life and make the colors and textures of foods more palatable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In fact, New York City is implementing a new menu label law for restaurant foods. Chain restaurants that serve food items containing more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium must place a salt shaker logo next to menu items. A New York appeals court has temporarily paused the statute after a motion by the National Restaurant Association. 

“We’re seeing it as another undue burden on restaurants to face here,” said Kevin Dugan, New York State Restaurant Association regional director. “Studies have shown that warning labels don’t have a real effect on a consumer’s choices.” 

Besides cutting down on dining out, there are plenty of ways to reduce sodium intake while grocery shopping and preparing your own foods. Canned soups and vegetables contain loads of sodium. Be on the lookout for low-sodium options. You can also rinse canned beans and vegetables with water to remove some sodium.

Additionally, anything “instant” — think frozen meals, ready-made pasta, packaged sauces — usually has a high sodium count. Be wary of condiments such as salad dressings and soy sauce. Try to limit heavily processed meats. Buy foods fresh, and prepare them yourself.

Keep your eyes peeled for sodium’s other aliases on product ingredient panels. The term “soda” (i.e. baking soda) is a clue that the food contains sodium, as well as ingredients such as sodium nitrate, sodium citrate and monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Evaluate your sodium intake to make changes like a seasoned pro. Keeping your sodium consumption under control will allow you to shake it like a salt shaker for years to come.

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