Hold The Salt

Whether or not your blood pressure is high, give your heart a break and cut down on sodium.
Woman Refusing Salt. Health Care Concept, Hypertension Prevention


Have you checked the sodium content on your favorite packaged frozen meal lately, or on the can of soup you have for lunch? That bag of chips? Sodium (and sodium chloride, or salt) isn’t inherently bad—it’s a great natural preservative and flavor enhancer. But the way it’s loaded into many foods makes millions of Americans the salt-consuming equivalent of a boozing Bowery bum on a binge—even if they never go near a salt shaker.

Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension (high blood pressure), chances are that you should cut back on salt. Excessive sodium intake causes the body to retain extra water, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood. That can lead to higher blood pressure, which, if untreated, can boost the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney damage and other health problems.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day, the equivalent of about one teaspoon. For those with high blood pressure, the recommended limit is 1,500 mg per day. Yet the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day, largely through prepackaged and processed foods. Prime high-sodium offenders include soup, cold cuts, cheeses, condiments and even breads and rolls. If your weakness is pizza, keep in mind that the average slice contains 640 mg of sodium. And with Thanksgiving feasts and December holiday parties on the way, we’ll all be faced with even more tasty, salty goodies. A one-cup serving of mashed potatoes, for instance, carries 741 mg of sodium—so think before going back for a second plate.

The best defense against unwanted sodium is to eat fresh, home-prepared foods as often as possible, advises Angela Langner, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Ridgewood-based Nutrition Center of Bergen County. Cooking at home puts you in control of recipes and allows you to choose healthy ingredients and monitor the salt used in dishes.

Good choices start at the grocery store. To avoid sneaky sodium, choose foods with labels that specify 140 mg or less sodium per serving, Langner suggests. Check ingredients lists for terms like sodium chloride, NACl, monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder and disodium phosphate. If those items are near the top of the list, it’s likely the foods are high in sodium. Even some foods that are considered “healthy” can contain elevated levels of sodium—one cup of cottage cheese, for instance, contains 819 mg.

“Buy fresh, frozen or canned vegetables with no salt or sauce added,” says Langner, adding to rinse canned products to wash off any salt. “If you’re buying packaged foods, look for items that say ‘low sodium or ‘no salt added.’”

Meats like poultry, fish, lean pork and beef should also be purchased fresh when possible. Cured, smoked and other processed meats often contain high amounts of sodium.

Be cognizant of the amount of salt used when you’re preparing meals. Though you don’t want bland dishes, turn when you can to alternative ways of making flavors pop. Lime, lemon and vinegar can add an acidic taste to meals, while garlic powder (not garlic salt), onion and other herbs and spices are also low-sodium substitute flavor promoters, Langner says. “And when you use less salt while cooking,” she says, “each person can add a little bit more later at the table so that the dish is to their own tastes.”

Dining at a restaurant gives you less control of your sodium intake because you’re not preparing the food yourself. That, however, shouldn’t stop you from eating out—or from enjoying your favorite foods.

“Eat in moderation whether you’re trying to lose weight or reducing your sodium intake,” Langner says.

Many restaurants have online menus, so do your research and scan the offerings before you go out. But don’t be shy about asking your server about low-sodium dishes or requesting that little to no salt be added to your meal, she says. Do this not only with your main course, but also with side orders of veggies or rice. Another healthful option is to order fruit as a side item. And if an individual plate is too big, split it with someone else at your table.

As for takeout and fast food, these quick (and usually sodium-heavy) meals should be only an occasional treat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. If you already have hypertension, however, highly processed and salt-rich fast food should be avoided.

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