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Cut Your Salt to Help Your Heart

September 1, 2014 (Updated: August 15, 2019)
Lily Moran

Excessive sodium intake is a worldwide problem: the World Health Organization (WHO) lists reducing salt intake as one of its top 10 “best buys” for lowering the rates of chronic diseases.

But too little sodium creates hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition. If both too much and too little sodium are risky, clearly we have a situation where balance is important.

What is Sodium and Why You Should Care

Sodium comes in multiple forms in the diet: monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite, sodium saccharin, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and sodium benzoate. Table salt, or sodium chloride, is the form of sodium over which you have most direct control. While technically incorrect, people often use the terms sodium and salt interchangeably when talking about your nutritional health.

Here’s why. Sodium is an electrolyte that helps manage water supplies in and around your cells which, in effect, ensures that your cells and tissues are working properly. Sodium also helps regulate your blood pressure.

Too little sodium will cause your cells to become oversaturated with water, leading to swelling from head to toe. Low sodium, or sodium depletion, may make you feel a little disoriented because your brain tissues are swollen. If you’ve been working out and sweating a lot, you need to replenish your body with water and sodium or else your muscles will cramp.

How Too Much Salt Harms Your Health

You probably know high blood pressure is a consequence of ingesting too much sodium. And you know that high blood pressure increases your risk of stroke and heart disease. But did you know a high salt diet can cause liver disease, kidney disease, and potassium deficiency?

Further, recent research indicates that too much sodium worsens several autoimmune disorders: Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

How Much Sodium is Right for You?

The highly respected Institute of Medicine (IoM) recommends most Americans limit sodium intake to between 1,500 mg and 2,300 mg of sodium daily. If you are in any of the following groups, though, you should stay as close to the 1,500 mg mark as possible to maintain good health. These groups include:

  • Individuals age 51 or older
  • Those of African American descent
  • People with high blood pressure
  • Individuals with diabetes or chronic kidney disease

Saltiest Foods in your Homes

The saltiest foods in your home likely don’t taste very salty. That trickery is a big reason we’ve developed such a high-salt problem to begin with.

  • Breads – Breads and rolls are one of those silently salty foods. The label may not appear to show too much salt but one slice of bread can contain as much as 200 mg of sodium (about 9% of recommended daily intake).
  • Deli Meats – Cured meat is loaded with salt. A single slice of salami is 214 mg. And an ounce of pepperoni is 493 mg. All deli meats are loaded with salt.
  • Cheese – Parmesan and cottage cheese are the saltiest cheeses. But prepackaged cheese slices or sticks (i.e. string cheese) are more processed than cheese you get at the deli counter, which means they contain a lot of unnecessary salt.

(Side note: See what I did with this list so far? If you eat a bread-meat-cheese sandwich, you could easily consume more than 50-75% of recommended intake.)

  • Sauces and dressings – A serving of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing contains 260 mg of sodium. That seems small but that amounts to 11% of recommended daily intake, or 17% of recommended intake if you are at risk for high sodium levels. Now consider that a serving size is just two tablespoons. I would bet that most people are not stopping at two tablespoons when dressing their salads.
  • Soy sauce – Just one tablespoon of soy sauce contains 914 mg of sodium. One tablespoon! It’s basically concentrated liquid salt.
  • Canned and boxed foods – Salt is used to preserve and flavor canned and boxed foods. Just reading the labels of canned soups and boxed macaroni and cheese should be enough to scare you. You’ll see the word “sodium” multiple times in the ingredient lists.
  • Frozen entrees – I’d estimate that the majority of frozen entrees at your local grocery store exceed the recommended sodium intake in one serving.
  • “Reduced salt” or “No salt added” foods – Most of the time, foods with these phrases are high in salt to begin with. Reducing salt by 25% is not a bad thing, but read the label for the truth as to how much is actually in there.
  • Snacks – Chips and pretzels at least are honest in the sense that they actually taste salty. But people tend to keep snacking on them well past the suggested serving size.

If you bake, please be aware that baking soda contains substantial amounts of sodium, as much as 150 mg in just 1/8th of a teaspoon! There are salt-free alternatives that work just as well, though. Try looking for “sodium-free baking soda”; you may have to buy it online or from a specialty store.

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Why Nutrition Labels Are Your Friends

Anyone eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) of processed and prepared food is getting far too much sodium. But you have to read nutrition labels to know that, because, as you’ll see in the list below, some of the most serious offenders are not foods that we typically think of as being particularly salty.

Food  Sodium per serving
Packaged macaroni and cheese  2,000 mg in one cup
Frozen turkey TV dinner  1,230 mg
Soy sauce (“liquid salt”)  914 mg in one tbsp
Canned soups  900 mg in 1 cup
Canned corn  475 mg in one cup
“Heart Healthy” reduced sodium soup:  470 mg in 1 cup
Canned beans  433 mg in 1 cup
Frozen vegetables  430 mg in one cup
Cherry pie  400 mg in one slice
Canned chicken breast:  320 mg in ¼ cup
Corn flakes  320 mg in one ounce
Salsa  230 mg in one tbsp
Canned fruit  178 mg in one cup
Yogurt  125 mg in one cup

If you’re in the over-50 age category and should be limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily, that means no more than 500 mg of sodium per meal. Yet clearly, even one cup of packaged macaroni and cheese puts you over the limit for the entire day!

A few products offer “reduced sodium” or “no salt added” versions. Check the labels carefully, though. “Reduced” sodium food means 25% less than the regular version, and it may still contain high levels of sodium. (Reduced sodium macaroni and cheese would still have 1,500 mg per serving!) Many products use additional sugar or other additives to boost the flavor, which is not good for you.

Considering the potentially serious downsides of overdoing it with sodium, I do hope you’ll take action to cook your own food, so you can control the salt and sugar used much better than in prepared, processed food.

Lower Sodium Levels by Using Herbs & Spices

A common misconception is that when you reduce or remove salt from foods, you lose flavor. That’s not necessarily true. If you’re inclined to reach for the salt shaker during your meals try, instead, reaching for something to both lower your sodium levels and add more flavor to your foods.

When you add herbs and spices to your food, you aren’t just adding new and exciting flavors. Since herbs and spices are derived from plants, these flavors are backed up with health benefits. Here’s a rundown:

  • Cinnamon – Cinnamon has an extremely high antioxidant value, and it’s also a good source of iron, calcium and manganese. Studies have shown cinnamon can reduce inflammation, blood sugar, and blood triglyceride levels.
  • Basil – Basil is an inflammation fighter. It also has antiviral properties and is a natural way to help with nausea and a variety of digestive disorders.
  • Turmeric – Turmeric contains curcumin, which I speak frequently about as a cancer fighter, inflammation reducer, organ protector, depression lifter, arthritis pain eraser, and so much more. I also think it’s bold and flavorful and can be added to a variety of soups, meat dishes and sauces.
  • Rosemary – Rosemary is another source of powerful antioxidants. A variety of studies have showed rosemary can be used to ease muscle pain, improve memory, stimulate hair growth, and support the circulatory and nervous systems. Adding it to foods (meats and stews) is a popular use, but you can benefit more directly by boiling it in water to make a simple, cleansing tea.
  • Cayenne – A zesty dish spiced with cayenne pepper seems to send an energizing boost through your entire body. Turns out that feeling isn’t just the heat, but cayenne’s health benefits. Cayenne can help digestion by easing stomach pain and intestinal gas. It also improves poor circulation and reverses excess blood clotting. It also can fight heart disease and lower high cholesterol.
  • Dill – Dill is mostly known for its ability to settle upset stomachs, but it also has other antibacterial properties. However, when dill is heated it loses much of its nutritional value. To maximize its benefits, add it to uncooked foods (yogurt-based dips) or flavor foods after they have already been cooked (omelets).
  • Cumin – Widely used across the globe, cumin has a broad spectrum of health benefits. The long list includes cumin’s ability to treat skin disorders, respiratory disorders, anemia, insomnia and more. It’s also known for aiding digestion and improving immunity.
  • Garlic – Technically, garlic is neither an herb nor spice, but it’s too flavorful, versatile, and good for you to leave off this list. It’s a good source of manganese and vitamins C and B6. And that’s just the beginning. It can fight and prevent common colds and flus, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol levels.
  • Ginger – Ginger (also not an herb or spice) is widely for its ability to settle upset stomachs, but it does so much more. It’s an anti-inflammatory, which makes it a fighter of about every ailment known — including heartburn.

Now, I don’t want you to just slather random foods with these herbs and spices. Certain herbs and spices taste really well on certain foods. This is the best technique to cut back on salt in foods you cook, by substituting salt with these herbs and spices. The National Institute of Health created this list suggesting which herbs and spices go well with which kinds of food. Kick up the herbs and spices and cut back the salt. I suggest you print it out and keep it somewhere in your kitchen for easy reference.

Be in Control of Your Sodium Levels

To really maximize these health benefits, it’s always best to buy fresh and organic. I know it’s much easier to just buy a small shaker of rosemary or jar of minced garlic. The fresher the food, the more nutritional value it has. And by buying organic, you aren’t consuming herbs and spices that have been exposed to additional toxins, thus rendering all those health benefits obsolete.

For some of your favorite herbs, consider buying plants to keep in the kitchen window. That’s the freshest possible herb, and you can control exactly what gets fed to your plant.

Just becoming aware of sodium’s impact on your body and making small changes to avoid excesses are essential steps for anyone who wants to stay healthy. When dining out, get in the habit of asking your server about low-salt dishes. When you cook your own food, you are in control of sodium levels. With time and practice, you can quickly become a master of a variety of low-salt meals that are high in flavor and nutrition.

References

  • What We Eat in America.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published 2011.
  • Shreeves, Robin. “Want To Eat Less Salt? Add More Spice.” Mother Nature Network. Published Nov. 2, 2017.
  • Use Herbs and Spices Instead of Salt.” National Institute of Health. Published December 2013.
  • He FJ, MacGregor GA. “Salt, blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.” Current Opinions in Cardiology. 2007 Jul;22(4):298-305.
  • Perry IJ. “Dietary salt intake and cerebrovascular damage.” Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases. 2000 Aug;10(4):229-35.
  • He FJ, MacGregor GA. “A comprehensive review on salt and health and current experience of worldwide salt reduction programmes.” Journal of Human Hypertension. 2009 Jun;23(6):363-84.
  • He FJ, MacGregor GA. “Reducing population salt intake worldwide: from evidence to implementation.” Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. 2010 Mar-Apr;52(5):363-82.

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