By Elisa Zied, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/31/2011 11:28:34 AM ET 2011-01-31T16:28:34

American diets need to get a lot less salty, according to the U.S. government.

The Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments issued the latest dietary guidelines Monday, instructing about half the population to reduce daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams, or about a half a teaspoon of salt, a day.

Along with pushing for a more plant-based diet loaded with vegetables, fruit and whole grains, the new food rules also advise Americans to reduce the sugar and refined grains in daily diets, including drinking more water instead of sugary drinks.

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The guidelines, which are written every five years, reduce the amount of recommended daily salt for those who are 51 and older, African Americans, or those who have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. For the rest of the population, the new food rules remain basically unchanged from 2005.

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The recommendation for how much sodium Americans should consume may seem drastic — the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium a day — but nutrition expert Marion Nestle wishes the government guidelines were more straightforward about pinpointing the food sources of most of the excess calories, sugar, fat and sodium in our diets.

"I would have loved to see them name names and flat out say 'avoid soda, and eat less steak, french fries, pizza, and cookies,' instead of tap dancing around the issue," says Nestle, author of "Food Politics" and Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

The guidelines are intended as a roadmap for federal nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program and are a major influence for how foods are developed and the types of ingredients used, such as more whole grains or fortified foods, and snacks without trans fats or added sugars. For the first time, the government specifically addresses the guidelines to a predominantly unhealthy, overfed, and overweight population — an estimated 68 percent of American adults are currently overweight or obese.

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More vegetables, whole grains
Studies have shown excess sodium raises blood pressure and increases hypertension risk, contributing to heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. There’s strong evidence for adults and moderate evidence for children that as sodium intake drops, so does blood pressure. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating salty foods like french fries can affect arteries in only 30 minutes by making it harder for blood to flow through blood vessels, an effect that can last for up to two hours.

Where's the salt?

The 2010 guidelines are not a big overhaul from 2005, but the new rules do urge a 20 to 30 percent reduced intake of solid fats and added sugars. Americans currently consume about 35 percent of their total daily calories from solid fats found in desserts such as cakes and cookies, pies, doughnuts and granola bars, regular cheese, sausage, hot dogs, bacon and ribs, pizza and french fries. Added sugars are found in fruit drinks, ice cream, and candy.

The new food rules also encourage Americans to pare down portions in their meals and limit refined grains. They also recommend 150 minutes of physical activity weekly, a level consistent with previous guidelines. For adults, that means 15 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week. Children and adolescents age 6 and older should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Younger kids should play actively several times a day, the government advises.

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Story: How much sodium? Decoding nutrition labels

Although daily recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol also haven’t changed, the new recommendations tell Americans to avoid synthetic trans fats. High intakes of these fats often found in margarine, snack foods and prepared desserts raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, lower “good” HDL cholesterol and raise the risk of coronary heart disease. 

“Reducing calories from solid fats and added sugars allows people to consume more nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables, including cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk and milk products, without exceeding overall calorie needs,” says Roger A. Clemens, a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. Although not a significant departure from previous guidelines, the new recommendation is for no more than 5 to 15 percent of calories from solid fats and added sugars, an estimated 260 calories a day for every 2,000 calories consumed.

Clemens explains the guidelines are meant to provide flexible guidance instead of a rigid prescription for how to eat. There have been several moves — including the 2010 National Salt Reduction initiative, a New York-led partnership with major food marketers and restaurants such as Kraft, Boar’s Head, Unilever and Subway — to reduce the sodium in processed and restaurant foods.

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Experts argue that simply slashing sodium will help us eat more healthfully since many salty foods are also packed with calories, fat and sugar. About 75 percent of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged and restaurant foods, says nutritionist Melinda Johnson, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

In restaurant meals, sodium lurks in fried or baked foods, condiments and salad dressings, for example.

“When you go out to eat, ask for food prepared without salt," she says. "Also look for sodium and other nutrition information online ahead of time before you go to a fast food restaurant.” She also recommends finding out where sodium may hide, for example in unlabeled foods like poultry and meats, and to ask for lower sodium options.

Story: Ellie Krieger’s healthy dishes are anything but bland

As one example, Lona Sandon, R.D., another spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, suggests lowering sodium by eating quick cooking oats instead of instant oatmeal. She also suggests reading labels, and says many shredded wheat cereals have little or no sodium.  Worried about how these will taste? “For flavor and more nutrients, you can dress up cereal up with sliced banana, diced apple pieces, or chopped walnuts,” says Sandon.

Elisa Zied, R.D. is the founder/president of Zied Health Communications, LLC and author of "Nutrition at Your Fingertips" and co-author of "Feed Your Family Right!" She's also a current spokesperson for the new got milk? Pour One More Campaign. For more, visit elisazied.com

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Video: Flavorful, heart-healthy meals

  1. Transcript of: Flavorful, heart-healthy meals

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Back now at 8:45. This morning on TODAY'S HEALTHY HEART , we're cooking to save your life. Meals that will lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol without tasting bland and boring. Nutritionist Ellie Krieger is

    the author of "So Easy: Luscious , Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week." Ellie , welcome back. Nice to see you.

    Ms. ELLIE KRIEGER (Author, "So Easy"): Good to be here, Matt.

    LAUER: Full disclosure, I'm trying to eat healthier. I find that if you plan ahead, you can do this; if you don't and you wait to eat what's right next to you or convenient, you're in big trouble.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Absolutely. And it's those highly processed convenience foods that we go for when we don't plan ahead that are -- really can be a problem for our heart . So when you're eating heart - healthy , you want to go for minimally processed foods , foods that are high in nutrients, high in fiber, high in antioxidants, and those are really simple foods, but you have to plan ahead, like you say.

    LAUER: And when we talk about blood pressure , instead of using a lot of salt in foods, and we all know as Americans we oversalt our food...

    Ms. KRIEGER: Right.

    LAUER: ...use other spices to take the place.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Exactly. Just because it's less salt doesn't mean they have to be bland.

    LAUER: All right. Let's talk about your recipes. The first one is an aromatic beef stew ...

    Ms. KRIEGER: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...with butternut squash .

    Ms. KRIEGER: Yes, it is.

    LAUER: Most people don't think of beef and heart - healthy .

    Ms. KRIEGER: Right. And the thing is you want to probably eat less beef, but the thing is you can include it in a heart - healthy diet . And I think people who might be afraid to make change because of that might not realize that you can have some. So the key is...

    LAUER: All right. So you've got some onions in there?

    Ms. KRIEGER: Onions sauteing in here. I browned the beef already and I just browned a pound. I'm putting now some garlic and ginger, so here's where the flavor comes in. And interestingly, these are anti-inflammatory so these are good for your heart , too. They're giving you flavor but they're also giving you some health benefits. Here's...

    LAUER: Have you chosen a leaner cut of meat?

    Ms. KRIEGER: Exactly. So it's a lean cut in a sensible portion. One pound for four people. Everyone's going to get a bite of beef in every bite of stew, but it's just not overdoing it. So you're just putting that back in. Then here we go with the colorful produce; butternut squash , fabulous -- this -- you can buy it precut, this is about from one whole squash, you can cut it yourself as well.

    Ms. KRIEGER: And just getting that in there. More color, the tomatoes. Again, here I'm using diced canned tomatoes, but no salt added. So I'm going to add salt if I want to later, but this way I'm in control of it, you know what I mean ?

    LAUER: OK. Some...

    Ms. KRIEGER: Same thing with tomato sauce . And some broth, some beef broth .

    LAUER: Great. And again, there's no salt in the beef broth . Want me to add that?

    Ms. KRIEGER: Exactly. Sure, that's great.

    LAUER: The whole thing?

    Ms. KRIEGER: Go for it .

    LAUER: OK, this is going to simmer and cook down.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Wait, but I have a few more spices for you.

    LAUER: OK.

    Ms. KRIEGER: All right? I have some cinnamon. So this is like full flavor , you know? Some cinnamon, some cumin and some -- a little bit of heat from some hot pepper.

    LAUER: So the people who are used to salty food, are they going to immediately notice the absence of it in this dish?

    Ms. KRIEGER: No. You're going to immediately notice a lot of flavor ...

    LAUER: OK.

    Ms. KRIEGER: ...is what you're going to immediately notice. This gets simmered for about 30 minutes . And everything sort of melds together so beautifully.

    LAUER: Softens up.

    Ms. KRIEGER: All of the flavors meld together, all the colors sort of -- and then I serve this...

    LAUER: Ooh , you know, that smells fantastic.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Yeah. It's really high flavor .

    LAUER: It really does.

    Ms. KRIEGER: And then the thing is I'm serving it over a whole grain. So whole grain couscous takes 10 minutes to make. Just serve some up.

    LAUER: We're going to sample that in a second.

    Ms. KRIEGER: All right.

    LAUER: You've got a nice little plate of it over there on the side.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Exactly. All right.

    LAUER: Come on around the corner here, let's take a look at your second dish. You're using salmon in this one. Why do you like salmon in a diet, especially a heart - healthy diet ?

    Ms. KRIEGER: OK. Eating fish two times a week you have a healthier heart , it's as simple as that. And it has those heart - healthy fats. Salmon is one of the best sources of that heart - healthy fat. So again, colorful vegetables, I have an onion sauteing here in a little oil. Think about adding color. All of this is potassium, which is going to help lower blood pressure . It's fiber which is going to help with cholesterol. It's all those great antioxidants. A little garlic again, thinking of full flavor . And then you're just letting this soften. I'm adding a little tomato paste , and that's also another great flavor element that doesn't have salt.

    LAUER: OK.

    Ms. KRIEGER: OK? So just basically integrating that all around.

    LAUER: There's no juice in that, what are you going to use for the liquid part of that?

    Ms. KRIEGER: OK. So what I'm going to do here is just some chicken broth . Again, no salt added, or low-sodium chicken broth .

    Ms. KRIEGER: Get that in there. And some chickpeas, and I love incorporating beans, beans are a really important part of a heart - healthy diet , high in fiber, great vegetable protein. And again, I always get the no-salt-added if I'm using the canned beans.

    LAUER: OK. How long will that simmer?

    Ms. KRIEGER: So then you cover this and you simmer it for about 10 minutes .

    LAUER: OK.

    Ms. KRIEGER: And it comes out so beautifully and colorfully.

    LAUER: And look, it's funny, the more you cook it the more the colors seem to come out.

    Ms. KRIEGER: It's so true, you get that color. I put in a little fresh basil. And you know what, a teeny bit of salt, teeny bit of salt and pepper . So doing it to taste, but really weaning yourself off of that reliance.

    LAUER: OK. Now you've taken salmon and you broiled it. What kind of salmon should people be looking for in the store?

    Ms. KRIEGER: You know what, I love wild salmon when I can get it. But really farm-raised is fine. I think if -- you know, get what you can -- what you can find. Really you kind of can't go wrong, to be honest with you.

    LAUER: OK.

    Ms. KRIEGER: But if you can get wild, go for it.

    LAUER: And you're going to plate the salmon right on top of your vegetable mixture.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Exactly. And it looks beautiful. And look, it's quite simple, really. I mean, this is a weeknight meal.

    LAUER: There you go. Let you do that.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Thank you.

    LAUER: And again, good for you, low in salt, low in cholesterol, heart - healthy . Ellie Krieger...

    Ms. KRIEGER: And high in flavor .

    LAUER: There you go. Thanks so much. Good to have you here.

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