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If you try to cut back on heavily salted items, you’ll also likely end up eating a more nutritious diet because sodium often lurks in foods that are high in calories or fat and sugar.
By Elisa Zied, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/23/2008 1:37:22 PM ET 2008-05-23T17:37:22

A pinch here, a dash there, could salt really be so bad? Actually, sodium is shaking out to be the next diet villain.

The average American consumes 50 percent more sodium — as much as one and a half teaspoons of salt — than the maximum recommendation.

Our diets have become so loaded with salt that, in response to a consumer group's urging, the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to set limits on the amount that would be permitted in different types of foods, such as breads.

The American Heart Association and other medical experts want stronger labels on foods with high-salt content and are calling for a 50 percent reduction in the amount of salt in packaged and processed foods. Cutting our sodium intake by half would prevent 150,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease each year, according to estimates from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

It could be at least a year before the FDA decides whether to restrict salt in foods. In the meantime, a few major food marketers, including Campbell Soup Co., General Mills, and ConAgra, which makes Banquet and Chef Boyardee products,have rolled out some low-sodium products.

Still, more needs to be done to cut the amount of salt we consume each day. And that's not as simple as skipping the table salt. More than three-quarters of the salt in our diets comes from packaged, processed and restaurant foods.

We need some, but not so much
Everyone needs some sodium. The mineral works with chloride and potassium to maintain fluid balance in the body. It also helps regulate blood pressure, transmits nerve impulses, and helps muscles, including the heart, contract and relax.

But for some, a high-sodium diet can contribute to the development of high blood pressure. An estimated 30 percent of Americans over the age of 20 have hypertension or take blood pressure lowering medication. Rates are also increasing in children. Between 1988 and 2002, hypertension in children increased from 7.7 percent to 10 percent.

A variety of studies support lowering salt to reduce blood pressure. A recent long-term, follow-up study found that those with prehypertension, or early-stage high blood pressure, who participated in a lifestyle intervention program that included sodium reduction of 25 percent to 30 percent lowered their risk of several cardiovascular problems by 25 percent. They also reduced their risk of death by 20 percent up to 15 years after the trial.

Deprogram your craving
We learn to crave salt, although studies suggest we can learn to prefer less in just a few months. If you try to cut back on heavily salted items, you’ll also likely end up eating a more nutritious diet because sodium often lurks in foods that are high in calories or fat and sugar.

It can be challenge to stick to a lower sodium diet, but you may discover you actually like it.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that people with prehypertension who followed a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods with three different levels of sodium for 30 daysfound they liked diets that provided either 2,300 mg or 1,200 mg of sodium as much as or better than the diet with the most sodium — 3,500 mg, an amount similar to what most Americans consume daily. Subjects who followed the lower sodium diets were as likely (if not more likely) to continue with the diets as those who consumed the high-sodium diet.

How to slash the salt in your diet:

  • Load up on potassium-rich fruits and vegetables. Potassium can lessen the adverse effect of sodium on blood pressure. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, winter squash, spinach, bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, lentils, plantains, kidney beans, split peas, soybeans, and lima beans are all good sources.
  • Some foods like breads and cereals may not taste salty, but can be packed with sodium. Look for sodium free (less than 5 mg sodium per serving), very low-sodium (35 milligrams or less per serving), or low-sodium (140 milligrams or less per serving) products. Labels promising “reduced sodium” or “unsalted” foods may still contain more than you need.
  • Salt can be listed by other names, such as baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, or any compound with sodium or Na in its name, so check food labels. An entire meal should contain no more than 600 mg of sodium.
  • Instead of seasoning with salt, try pepper, herbs and spices, lemon, lemon juice, chives, dill, cider vinegar, parsley, garlic, onion, paprika, rosemary, cinnamon and salt-free seasoning blends.
  • When dining out, share entrées, order small portions, and ask for dishes prepared without salt. Ask for no sauce or have it on the side and use sparingly. If you take any prescription or over the counter medications, check if they contain any sodium. 

If you must have salt, add it after cooking since the stronger taste of cooked food will help you use less.

Elisa Zied, R.D., is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She is the co-author of “Feed Your Family Right!” and “So What Can I Eat?!”

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