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To reduce sodium in your diet, watch out for processed foods

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By Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Brunswick County Center

One section of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans contains a list of food components that most of us need to reduce to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Sodium is one of them. We usually think of this as the saltshaker, but it can be so much more.
This recommendation has changed slightly from earlier guidelines. The overall guidelines say that Americans should reduce their daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams. It then goes on to say that if you are 51 and older, an African American of any age, have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, you need to keep your intake of sodium to 1,500 mg. or less every day. This new lower recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children and the majority of adults.
Why the concern? High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
While some foods are extremely high in sodium, the problem of excess sodium reflects frequent consumption of foods that are only moderately high in sodium, such as yeast breads. This makes it difficult for even the most dedicated consumer to meet the 2,300 mg. recommendation, let alone the lower 1,500 mg. recommendation for those special groups. It takes some work.
Here are a few quiz questions to see how much you really know about the sodium in your diet:
Q: Approximately how much of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods?
A: It may not surprise you, but we get most of the salt in processed foods, not saltshakers. A whopping 75 percent of all the sodium in our diets comes from prepared or processed foods. The remaining 25 percent occurs naturally in food or is added at the table or in cooking.
Q: How much sodium is in a teaspoon of salt?
A: Again, it may surprise you, but there is only 2,300 mg. in a teaspoon of salt, but people don’t usually eat salt by the spoonful.
Q: What is the approximate average daily sodium intake of people in the United States?
A: It’s really obvious that we’re getting too much sodium in our diets. Reports show that more than 88 percent of Americans eat more than the recommended amount of sodium on a daily basis. The average daily sodium intake is 3,436 milligrams. This amount equals about 1.5 teaspoons of salt every day.
Q: Can foods be high in salt/sodium without tasting salty?
A: Yes, even sweet foods like donuts and cakes may be higher in sodium than you think.
What can you do about the amount of sodium in your diet?
Check the nutrition labels on packages and avoid items with high sodium content. Compare the sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals and choose the foods with lower numbers.
Eat highly processed foods less often and in smaller portions, especially cheese foods, such as pizza; cured meats, such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and deli and luncheon meat; and ready-to-eat foods, like canned chili, ravioli and soups.
Pay attention to condiments, too. Foods like soy sauce, ketchup, pickles, olives, salad dressings and seasoning packets are high in sodium.
Avoid adding salt when cooking and baking. One exception here is when baking yeast bread. Salt is typically used in yeast breads and other bread-type products made with yeast to regulate the growth of yeast and prevent the food from rising too rapidly. While yeast breads can be made without salt, modifications in the ingredients and recipe techniques are usually made to create a product with satisfactory texture. Salt also adds flavor. Most bread is still made with salt.
When shopping, look for foods labeled low sodium, reduced sodium or no salt added.
Keep the saltshaker off the kitchen counter and the dinner table.
Eat fresh foods and frozen veggies. Most canned products have salt added.
Request that salt is left off when eating out.
Cook more meals at home where you have control of what’s in your food (This can help the budget, too).
Use other seasonings. Add salt-free spices and herbs to season food without adding salt. Use garlic, vinegar or lemon juice to season foods or no-salt seasoning mixes. Try black or red pepper, basil, curry, ginger or rosemary.
It’s not easy. We Americans do have a taste for salt. Start by cutting back on salt little by little to adjust your taste buds. Pay attention to the natural tastes of various foods. Your taste for salt will lessen over time.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Alice Henneman at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.