We’ve all heard of the indulgent “death by chocolate”, but what’s really dangerous is salt. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health has found that one in 10 deaths in this country can be attributed to high levels of sodium. Sugar has been in the crosshairs of every organization trying to reverse obesity, but the author of this recent study says that your salt shaker will do way more harm than your sugar bowl. That may be because sodium is in almost every food that we eat: it is naturally occurring in everything from plants to meat, and it’s also added in abundance to every processed, packaged, and boxed food on store shelves.
Our bodies do need some sodium. Sodium helps control hydration, manages heart rhythms and plays a role in muscle contraction. But we don’t need much. The Institute of Medicine, which sets the Recommended Daily Allowance for vitamins and minerals, recommends that we cap sodium at 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day. Make that 1,500 if you’re over age 51, are African American or have kidney disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure. Our sodium needs are easily met through natural sources: a cup of raw broccoli has 29 mg of sodium, a cup of long grain brown rice has 10 mg, and a serving of Alaskan salmon has 69 mg.
1. No more fast food. Start taking your own lunch to work. Burgers, fries, and even salad dressings in fast food restaurants are infused with more sodium than we need in an entire day. A Quarter Pounder with Cheese and large fries at McDonald’s gives you 1,320 milligrams of sodium. Gross!
2. Find different flavors. Find ways to add flavor to your food without adding salt. Cook rice or quinoa in low-sodium vegetable broth. Add fresh or dried herbs to poultry and seafood. Grill meats and vegetables with peppers, onions, and garlic. The options are endless and so is the taste!
3. Read the labels. In the American diet, bread and cheese are the main sources of salt. Condiments, soups, crackers, cheese, and anything else you’re buying in a box, bag, or bottle at the grocery store is also going to be high in sodium. Buy reduced or low-sodium options.
4. Bite, then salt. Your instant reaction shouldn’t be to cover your meal in salt before you’ve even taken a bite; it probably doesn’t even need it. At a restaurant, it’s safe to assume it’s been well-salted already. When eating at home, well-cooked and flavorful food doesn’t even need salt.
5. De-salt your canned goods. Sodium is a preservative, so you’re guaranteed to find a lot of it in canned goods. Reduce some of that by rinsing your canned foods before preparing. Dump beans, corn, or peas into a colander and run water over it to wash away some of the salt.
6. Use fresh ingredients instead of processed. You’ll save umpteen milligrams of sodium by making your own sauces and soups, and simmering dried beans until soft (rather than opening a can). Yes, it’s a time commitment, but if you’re serious about salt reduction (and you should be!) it is time well spent. Make these staples more convenient by cooking them in big batches, and freezing in single-serving portions for later use.
7. Get creative. Acidic flavorings like lemon or lime juice and vinegar can help bring out a food’s inherent savoriness, which in turn helps you reduce or even eliminate salt. Or, try a sprinkle of fresh grated lemon zest, chopped fresh or dried herbs, garlic or shallots; while not always a perfect replacement for salt, they can help ease the transition to lower-salt cooking by waking up other flavors. Get creative with seasoning blends, found in any spice aisle; just make sure they’re labeled “salt-free.” I like lemon pepper, poultry seasoning and salt-free herb blends like Mrs. Dash. (I don’t recommend potassium-chloride-based salt substitutes, which taste “off” to our palates.)
Use measuring spoons when adding salt to be sure you’re not overdoing it. Even if a recipe calls for a “pinch” or to “salt to taste,” measure what you are adding, using a small amount (say, 1/8 teaspoon) at a time and be sure to taste as you go.