HEALTHY EATING: Cut down on salt in diet

By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC

Talk about spicing things up! Move over, trans fats; salt is under fire as the next nutrition no-no on its way out from restaurant menus and processed foods.

Sodium levels in foods have been on the nutrition watch list for years because too much sodium in the diet is associated with high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

But now health officials in New York are asking restaurants and makers of packaged foods to shake the salt habit and cut levels of sodium by 25 percent over the next five years. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s plan is called the National Salt Reduction Initiative, and it involves other cities and states including North Carolina and Tennessee in the Southeast, but not Georgia as of yet.

Who should care about consuming too much salt? Just about everyone, according to a public health alert on sodium intake from health watchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC report concludes that 70 percent of U.S. adults should limit sodium intake.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about one teaspoon of salt) per day. A lower limit of 1,500 mg per day is recommended for adults with high blood pressure, those older than 40, and all African-American adults..

Most of us consume around 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day (about two teaspoons) so it looks like just about everyone will have to savor flavors with less salt to follow current health advice.

Most Americans would be wise to lower their sodium intake. Photo by Rich Adicks, AJC Special.

Most Americans would be wise to lower their sodium intake. Photo by Rich Adicks, AJC Special.

A challenge ahead

Fortunately, there are good minds with discriminating taste buds working on lowering sodium content of popular foods — even fast foods. Many popular chains employ dietitians who are working on an industry-wide movement to trim salt content from menus. Considering that trans-fat removal took about two years, you won’t see salt disappearing from restaurant recipes overnight. What’s different with salt removal is that it is not driven by consumer demand, it’s driven by requests from health officials, so chefs and test kitchen teams have to find a win-win for taste and health. Chick-fil-A’s product development team, for instance, is looking at ways to add salt topically to fries so you get the salty flavor with less total sodium.

Another challenge for restaurants is that consumer demand for foods lower in fat and calories often means adding flavor with other ingredients such as dressings and salty spice blends, which are often high in sodium. If you do choose to limit sodium intake, nutrition labels on packaged foods list sodium content to help you keep track. Canned soup companies have been doing a good job to reduce sodium and boost flavors with other ingredients. But, when it comes to dining out, you’re often on your own. Some restaurants provide sodium information on their Web sites, so that’s helpful. But, in general, here are a few salt-savvy tips for dining out.

Trim processed items

The main source of sodium in the diet is salt (sodium chloride), which is 40 percent sodium by weight (1 teaspoon of salt equals 2,325 mg of sodium). Most of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods such as salad dressings, soups, cheeses, baked goods and snack foods. So cut back on portions or choose lower-sodium versions; there are many better-tasting ones on the market today.

Taste buds adjust. Scientists who study taste have found that when you cut back on salt, you get used to it in about three weeks. You may even discover the real flavor of foods.

● Note that pickles, cheese, smoked meats, gravies, sauces, salad dressings, barbecue sauces, soy sauce and broths are usually high in sodium, so use sparingly.

● Ask the server for help. Request that foods be prepared without added salt, or ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side. For low-sodium dressings, try lemon or a splash of vinegar.

● Look for menu items you can season at the table, such as a baked potato instead of mashed potatoes. Surface salt, such as a light shake on scrambled eggs or fresh sliced tomatoes, can give you the salt flavor hit you crave with just a small sprinkling.

● Upgrade your salt shaker or grinder. Sea salt (which by weight contains the same amount of sodium as regular salt) is often brighter and livelier in flavor.

● Consider bringing your own shaker of salt-free seasonings when you dine out. Companies such as Mrs. Dash or McCormick’s make low-sodium and salt-free blends of herbs and spices. Tabasco sauce comes in tiny on-the-go bottles, too.

● Eat more spinach, cantaloupe, oranges and other fruits and vegetables. They’re naturally low in sodium and are good sources of the mineral potassium, which acts as the counterbalance to sodium in body fluid regulation.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynoneil

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2 comments Add your comment

Chris McNeil

January 20th, 2010
10:39 am

It’s good to see some practical suggestions for reducing sodium.

People in general need more education on what makes for healthy eating habits. Personally, though, I do not feel we need government intervention to make this happen.

Health and fitness businesses, professionals, and organizations are stakeholders in advocating good health in their communities. It can make a tremendous difference when they join forces with the restaurants to create and co-promote healthy dining choices.

Health-minded people win with more and better healthy choices in restaurants. The restaurants win by getting more of this type of customer (who in many cases would otherwise shy from eating out). The health pros win by getting the exposure as health leaders in their communities.

Chris McNeil, founder
FitMenu Restaurant Nutrition and Healthy Dining

Lisa Cain

January 21st, 2010
8:26 am

These are great suggestions. Avoiding packaged snacks that are high in sodium is easy if you plan. My favorite place for healthy snack suggestions is