Lately, sodium and its alter ego, salt, have been competing with sugar for the title of “mostly likely to kill you” in the popular media. What is it about this humble seasoning that threatens to wreak havoc on our health?
Most experts agree that regularly consuming excess sodium can raise blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, increases the risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke. However, it’s not the salt in the shaker that poses the biggest problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 percent of the sodium we eat comes from restaurant food. An additional 65 percent comes from processed and packaged foods, where sodium is a cheap preservative and flavor booster.
The CDC says the top sources of sodium in the diet are bread, deli meats, pizza, poultry (which is often infused with saltwater), soups, sandwiches (such as cheeseburgers), cheese, pasta dishes, meat dishes and snack foods. Some of these foods don’t even taste salty.
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Sodium aside, many processed foods are unfriendly to our arteries and overall health for multiple reasons. They tend to be high in fat, sugar and calories and low in vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. Therefore, eating fewer of these foods has health benefits beyond reducing sodium.
Fortunately, many nutrient-rich, health-promoting, single-ingredient foods are naturally low in sodium. Vegetables and fruit. Fish, eggs and lean meat. Beans and lentils. Whole grains. Nuts and seeds. Olive oil and avocados. Milk and plain yogurt. Herbs and spices.
Speaking of vegetables and fruit, it’s possible that the real problem is that we eat too much sodium while also eating too little potassium. We are advised to limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day — the amount in one teaspoon of salt — yet the average sodium consumption in the U.S. is about 2,300-4,500 mg per day. Potassium, which may have a neutralizing effect on sodium’s heart-damaging effects, fares even worse. The recommendation is 4,700 mg per day. Average consumption is about half that.
Potassium is abundant in many vegetables and fruits, especially dark leafy greens, crimini mushrooms, papaya, tomatoes and cauliflower. One reason that the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) way of eating is so effective at lowering blood pressure is that its eight-to-10 daily servings of vegetables and fruit help create a healthful balance of sodium and potassium. By contrast, a high-processed food (high sodium), low-vegetable-and-fruit (low potassium) diet is woefully unbalanced.
People with high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease stand to benefit the most from minding the sodium and potassium content of their food. But everyone can benefit from eating fewer processed foods and more vegetables and fruits.
Cutting back on sodium and salt can be an adjustment if your consumption is currently high. But it is possible to overcome a “salt tooth.” Cook from scratch a little more — and make your own soup. Read food labels, and look for no more than one milligram of sodium per calorie of food. And, yes, eat more vegetables. It takes some time, but your taste buds will gradually adapt.
Next time: Is gluten-free good?
Carrie Dennett: firstname.lastname@example.org; Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.