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A healthy adult needs between 1500 and 2400 milligrams of sodium per day, but many people end up having more than 3000 mg of sodium a day. Even just one teaspoon of salt contains approximately 2300 mg of sodium, and a single item from a fast food restaurant can have almost as much (a KFC chicken pot pie has 2160 mg): . Since chronic excess sodium is associated with hypertension and possibly other conditions for a minority of the population, some people are looking for ways to keep their sodium intake under control. An acute sodium overdose may also cause immediate medical symptoms, such as cracked, bleeding lips, nausea, and, in extreme cases, death: .
- Eat at home. It may be difficult or impossible to control the sodium content of foods prepared by others, whether you eat at somebody else’s home or at a restaurant.
- Avoid processed foods. Fresh produce, meat, and freshwater fish are typically salt-free or extremely low sodium, while processed and restaurant foods, such as soups and frozen dinners, are usually quite high in sodium. If you don’t have access to fresh vegetables, then sodium-free or low sodium canned vegetables are better than high sodium canned vegetables. Many frozen vegetables are low in sodium as well. Get into the habit of reading labels for sodium content. Remember, you can always add salt, if it’s really needed, later.
- Remove sodium from the surface of foods. For some products, the salt can be removed, such as by draining canned olives and soaking them in fresh water, or crumbling salt off the surface of pretzels or saltines. Choose “salt on top” products over those with salt mixed in. For example, avoid buying saltines with “unsalted tops”, as the salt is typically inside the crackers instead of on top, making it impossible to remove. “Salt on top” products also provide more salt taste per amount of sodium, so are a good choice from that perspective, as well.
- Evaluate seasonings for sodium content. Many products, such as bullion, bacon bits, grated parmesan or romano cheese, and assorted “seasonings” are mostly salt, so avoid those, whenever possible (instead of ketchup, mustard and pickle, try lettuce, onion and tomato on your burger). For products which include a separate “seasoning packet”, the amount of the packet used can be reduced or it can be eliminated entirely. For example, ramen noodles, especially baked ramen noodles, can be reasonably healthy, provided you don’t use the entire contents of the seasoning packet. However, these flavorings and “seasoned salt” are still better than adding straight salt, even if only slightly.
- Dilute sodium in foods. If you do purchase high sodium products, such as soups, one method to reduce the sodium level is dilution. For example, if you prepare soup as instructed on the label, it will have a high sodium content. Instead, you can start with the canned soup as a base, then add potatoes and fresh vegetables such as celery, onions, and carrots. The result is more soup, with a lower average sodium content, and higher average vitamin content, with a lower average cost (because fresh vegetables are also typically less expensive than canned soup). For another example, say you start with ham, which is quite high in sodium. To serve that directly would result in a high sodium intake for everyone who eats it. However, if you mix ham cubes in with unsalted mashed potatoes, you can prepare a tasty dish which has a reasonable sodium level. In addition, canned vegetables that are high in sodium, such as beans, peas and corn, should be rinsed before cooking.
- Take the salt shaker away. By not using salt when cooking or eating, many people can reduce their sodium intake by 30%. You can replace the salt shaker with a pepper mill, rosemary, garlic powder (not garlic salt), chili powder, or other spices. Freshly ground pepper can be especially good, and can eliminate the bland taste which we are so accustomed to interpret as meaning “it needs salt”. The salt is still available, but if you put it in a less accessible spot (like deep inside a cupboard or in a high cabinet) it is less likely to be used.
- Read labels and visit web sites for sodium content. Many restaurants have web sites with nutritional info, including sodium content. A good general website which lists nutritional data for fresh foods, processed foods, and many fast food restaurants is http://www.nutritiondata.com. When shopping for food, a good rule of thumb is to compare the listed number of calories per serving with the number of milligrams of sodium, and avoid products where the sodium number is greater than the calorie number. Assuming a 2500 calorie-a-day diet, this strategy should keep you within the recommended sodium range.
- Consider using a sodium substitute. There are many salt replacements on the market, including magnesium chloride and potassium chlorine. These will provide a similar, but not identical, flavor, without the negative effects of sodium. They can be found in the seasoning section of your local grocery store. However, be aware that others may not be able to tolerate the taste of salt substitutes, so don’t add them to dishes, but rather allow each person to add some themselves, if they wish. Also, smaller amounts are better when using these products, as too much gives the food a chemical taste.
- Be cautious of “softened” water. Water softeners sometimes add a substantial amount of sodium: . Avoid drinking such water; instead use bottled water or a reverse osmosis filter. Ideally you should also avoid cooking with “softened” water (although using bottled water for cooking could be quite expensive).
- Drink plenty of fresh water. Water helps the body in many ways, and may help to eliminate excess sodium. Can’t stand plain water ? Try adding a slice of lemon.
- Watch what you drink. Many drinks are quite high in sodium, such as a small Burger King chocolate shake, with 298 mg of sodium: . If you are thirstier after you finish the drink, that’s a sure sign of a high sodium content.
- Beware of high-sodium medications. Many meds contain sodium. While no prescription med should be discontinued without consulting a physician, you may want to ask your doctor if any sodium-free or low sodium alternative meds are available.
- These steps can and should be combined. For example, prepare baked ramen noodles, without the spice packet, then add fresh vegetables and potatoes, then add freshly ground pepper. If it still needs salt, add a small amount of the seasoning packet.
- For best results, change your diet and implement these steps gradually.
- It may help to keep a food diary for a week. Record everything you consume, including beverages and seasonings, and find out how much sodium each item contains. Eliminate the highest sodium sources and replace them with no-sodium or low-sodium substitutes.
- When you buy meat to cook, check to ensure that it is not “seasoned” (i.e., salted), as is sometimes the case with cuts of pork and chicken sold at grocery stores.
- Garlic can not only add flavor to most meals, but it is an excellent replacement for salt as a taste enhancer.
- If possible, add salt near the end of the cooking process or just before eating. This way, less salt will suffice since there is less time for it to penetrate into food.
- Buy fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned. When canned vegetables are the only option, you can rinse the veggies in water to remove some of the sodium.
- Stay on track, think about people you love that want you to do this.
- Some high blood pressure medications do not mix with salt substitutes–check with your health care provider or pharmicist before using!
- Many low sodium products contain salt substitutes, such as potassium or magnesium chloride, instead of the usual sodium chloride. Such products can have an unpleasant aftertaste. If you don’t like this taste, be careful to check the ingredients list for salt substitutes on all low sodium products.
- Those with impaired kidney function and those who have had an organ transplant should avoid salt substitutes, particularly those containing potassium chloride.
Sources and Citations
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