Too Much Sodium

Sodium pictureExcess sodium in your body can kill you, even if you don’t have high blood pressure. The good news: most of us can reduce our sodium intake without having to eat overly bland food.

I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in the early 2000’s. Among other things, my doctor prescribed a blood pressure medication, and told me to cut my sodium intake. (Yes, and exercise too. I’m still working on that.) Excess sodium contributes to high blood pressure, and it can also increase the likelihood of some debilitating medical conditions. Although I significantly modified my diet, I still eat plenty of good food and I don’t feel deprived, but my blood pressure numbers are now well within the normal range.

I started paying more attention to nutrition issues in the news, and subscribed to the Nutrition Action Healthletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). It’s a terrific resource for nutritional health information. CSPI has long been an advocate for consumer health issues; it brought to light the dangers of trans fat and food borne illnesses, and successfully lobbied for greater disclosure of important nutritional information, both on packaged foods and at restaurants.

How the Food Industry Contributes

Sodium content picture

Tomato juice can easily contain 520mg of sodium in a 5.5 ounce serving.

In recent years, the issue of excessive sodium content in processed foods has come to the forefront. CSPI and many other nutrition and medical organizations and professionals now agree that on average, Americans get twice the recommended daily allowance of sodium, due in large part to the astonishing quantities already present in processed and restaurant foods.

Large amounts of this stuff are dangerous, and it can eventually produce heart disease, kidney failure or strokes. You can find more detailed information about the dangers of sodium from:

Taking Action

I for one am trying to bring my sodium intake down to a healthy level. On average for Americans, the majority (about 77%) of the sodium we ingest comes from processed and prepared foods (including restaurant fare), so by purchasing lower sodium products, I should be able to scale back my intake. I examine nutrition labels, and don’t buy food that has more than about 550 milligrams of sodium per serving, and only rarely buy anything with over 250 mg (the recommended daily limit is between 1,500 mg and a generous 2,400 mg, depending on the authority).

This has presented a problem, as some products simply aren’t available in a lower-sodium version at my local supermarket. However, this situation has steadily improved; if you look closely at the nutrition labels, you can find either lower-sodium versions of your favorite foods, or products that will likely serve as acceptable alternatives.

Horse licking salt pictureI was at Trader Joe’s, looking for a can of reduced-sodium black beans, and was surprised to discover that they don’t have any! (But Safeway does. Check out their “O Organics” line.) Trader Joe’s tries to sell foods with better nutrition, fewer additives and less processing than many other retailers, but they completely missed the boat on this (although they do carry quite a few other lower-sodium foods).

I talked about it with the manager, and learned that in his experience, the overwhelming majority of his customers have little interest in selecting nutritious foods (e.g. low sodium, low saturated fat, low cholesterol, high fiber). I surmise that this applies to most people, not just Trader Joe’s customers. I don’t know why this is the case. They might as well join the horses at the salt lick.

Help Yourself

If you’re reading this article, you might be among that growing minority of people who really want to improve their health but are disheartened at the prospect of onerous compromises in their lifestyle. Reducing the amount of sodium in your diet can be an effective and relatively pain-free starting point in a plan to improve your overall health.

This is something you can do for yourself that doesn’t require going to the gym, or undergoing a medical procedure, or changing the composition of your meals very much. It doesn’t have to cost any more (unless you insist on shopping at Whole Foods); it takes only a small amount of extra time to read nutrition labels and choose the healthier alternative; and you can reach your goal in stages.

If you’re struggling to cut your sodium intake, but you dislike the taste of a particular low-sodium food item, here’s one approach: Serve the low-sodium item, then add salt to it at the dinner table!

It may seem strange to reintroduce the element you’re trying to avoid, but you still end up with less sodium (possibly a lot less) in your food. Here’s why:

  • Salt added to food just before you eat it has a greater effect on its taste than the sodium previously added during processing or cooking. Some processed foods that contain huge quantities of sodium don’t taste salty at all. Why buy food with all that sodium if you can’t taste it?
  • It takes a whole lotta shaking to dispense enough salt from a shaker to match the typical levels of sodium in processed food. Your food will taste plenty salty long before you reach that point.
  • You can add just enough table salt to make the food taste good without overdoing it. Then at each meal, decrease the amount you add by a small increment, and you’ll find that eventually a smaller amount of salt satisfies your taste without seeming like a sacrifice.

    Salt lick candies picture

    Definitely not this

Demand that your grocery retailer stock low- or reduced-sodium alternatives for everything they carry. It’s time we insisted that manufacturers stop pretending they can’t produce reasonably healthy food at a reasonable price.

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Posted on 17 August, 2010, in Food and Drink, Health + Nutrition and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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