Lighten Up on Salt

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on November 13, 2006 · 0 comments

To salt, or not to salt – that is the question.

If you have high blood pressure, and nearly 1 in 4 Americans do, your doctor has told you to cut down on salt. So, you’ve emptied the salt shaker–but that may not be enough. Almost 80% of the salt in your diet comes from processed foods and salt added to foods we eat away from home.

That said, experts can’t quite agree on whether eating too much salt truly causes blood pressure. Like so many issues in nutrition, this is an evolving story.

But, here’s what we know: Sodium, one of the two major minerals that make up salt, regulates the fluid levels inside and outside of the cells in your body. Sodium monitors your blood volume, blood pressure, and the acidity of your body. The assumption is that when we eat too much sodium, blood pressure will rise. Population studies provide evidence that this is true.

In places where little salt is used, blood pressure does not go up with age as it does in the U.S. Americans have a 90% chance of developing high blood pressure as they get older! So how much of an impact can reducing sodium have on blood pressure?

About 10% to 15% of people with high blood pressure are very sensitive to salt. If they reduce the amount of salt they eat, their blood pressure goes down. Everyone else with high blood pressure will see a less dramatic improvement.

Let’s take things one step farther. Health experts recommend we eat no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day. The daily recommendation for adults is 1,500 milligrams up to age 50, 1,300 milligrams up to age 70, and 1,200 milligrams for those over age 70. But the average intake in the U.S. is 4,000 milligrams a day. Eating less sodium has no health risks, and reducing sodium may have some health benefits. So, eating less salt is probably a good idea.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has set a maximum sodium level for foods that use the nutrition claim “healthy.” And, the government has asked food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce salt in food processing over the next few years. This is being done, but manufacturers walk a fine line. If too much salt is removed from foods, changing its expected taste, will consumers hit the salt shaker?

As with all things in nutrition, moderation is probably the best approach. You don’t have to change your life—just make simple, consistent changes that will moderate your salt intake.

To lighten up on salt:

• Don’t salt restaurant or take-out choices

• Use fresh fruits and vegetables, or plain frozen vegetables, to complement take-out or prepared entrees

• Check the nutrition label – keep snacks under 400 milligrams a serving, and main dishes under 600 milligrams a serving

• Try low sodium or “no salt added” choices, you might be surprised at the taste

• Remember that fresh salads are naturally low in sodium—just go easy on the dressing

• Use plain frozen vegetables, which are lower in sodium than sauced and seasoned varieties

• Use frozen vegetables, which are almost all lower in sodium than canned

• Try baldy pretzels and unsalted nuts

• Reduce salt in recipes by half – swapping a 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt for 1 teaspoon saves 1,000 milligrams of sodium

• Don’t add salt when cooking rice, pasta, or hot cereal

• To flavor food, use fresh pepper and herbs instead of salt

• When you eat a high salt/sodium choice, balance it with lower sodium choices later in the day

Did you know?
1 teaspoon of table salt equals 2,000 milligrams of sodium. Coarser salts, such as kosher salt and sea salt, average between 1,100 and 1,900 milligrams sodium per teaspoon.

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