Sodium Solution: Shaking the Salt Habit

Around Los Angeles for the past several weeks, I couldn't help but notice the ads cropping up on billboards, posters and even on the sides of buses, asking, "Who is Salt?" Judging from the pictures, Salt is Angelina Jolie. But it reminded me of another question that should be just as prominent: What's the big deal about salt? How much should we really be eating?

Sodium is necessary for the body. It helps us maintain the proper balance of fluids. It has a role in transmitting nerve impulses and in influencing muscle contractions. But when we consume too much sodium - which is all too easy to do - we retain excess water in our circulation which may lead to high blood pressure.

We're all fairly calorie-conscious, and various diets have taught us to count carbs and fat grams. But far fewer diets seem concerned about sodium, which is unfortunate since cutting back on salt won't just make you healthier, it could save your life. High-sodium diets - which the vast majority of us are guilty of consuming - are a major contributor to high blood pressure, or hypertension. High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease - the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States each year. Nearly a third of Americans have hypertension. Hypertension also is a major cause of stroke - the No. 3 killer, and kidney failure. The data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for 2005-2006 indicates that only 1 in 10 adults met their recommended upper limit of salt intake based upon their own risk factors.

There's good scientific evidence to show that lower sodium diets are beneficial. For example, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension program, also known as DASH, directed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, conducted one of the most famous studies. In the experiment, volunteers were divided into three groups. One group consumed 3,300 milligrams of salt each day. Another took in the oft-recommended 2,400 milligrams. The third cut back to 1,500 milligrams a day. The study showed the less sodium the volunteers consumed, the lower their blood pressure.

Generally, the recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2,300 milligrams, around a single teaspoonful. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume an average of 4,000 milligrams daily - nearly twice the recommended amount. The Centers for Disease Control recommend even less sodium for most individuals, dropping the amount to 1,500 milligrams a day for anyone over age 40, African Americans and anyone with high blood pressure. Since these groups account for nearly 70% of the U.S. population, the goal should actually be 1,500 milligrams a day for everybody.

Where is all this salt coming from? For the most part, it's not from the shaker on the kitchen table. Only about 5 percent of sodium comes from salt added during home cooking and 6 percent is added at the table. Although 12 percent occurs naturally in fresh food, the vast majority of what Americans consume - 77 percent - comes from processed and restaurant food.

So, while you're eying those nutritional labels to check how many calories, how much fat, how many vitamins and the number of ingredients, go ahead and check the sodium, too. Try to keep it below 5 percent - but the actual number of milligrams is important, too. Keep in mind the percentages are based on the recommended daily allowance of 2,300 milligrams, not the 1,500 milligrams to which we should be limiting ourselves. Frozen dinners, cereals, soups, vegetable juices, packaged deli meats, potato chips and pretzels are common culprits.

Or, you could always skip the label-reading all together by choosing unprocessed foods. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store, as advised in my previous blog entry about grocery shopping. Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. If fresh vegetables are not an option, try thoroughly draining and rinsing canned vegetables. Alternately, go for the frozen vegetables.

Knowing the catch-phrases on labels is also important. If something is "sodium-free" or "salt free," that means it has less than 5 milligrams per serving. Very low sodium has 35 milligrams or less, and low sodium has 140 milligrams or less. Foods labeled "reduced" or "less-sodium" should have about half the sodium found in the regular version. Unsalted or "no salt added" means no salt was added - but the food may still contain the sodium that would naturally occur.

There are plenty of wonderful natural seasonings - pepper, dill, spicy chili, rosemary, citrus and more - that add layers of flavor without salt. But check the labels on condiments, especially soy sauce, ketchup and mustard; they can pack a hefty sodium punch, so use them sparingly.

Variety is the spice of life. Mixing up the variety of the seasonings you use rather than relying on salt alone will not only spice up your menu, but also protect your health.