Hold the Salt

Sodium. It’s a staple of life, abundant in our oceans, and in just about everything you eat. An adequate amount of sodium is vital for maintaining healthy blood pressure, healthy nerves and a healthy heart. Just about every recipe you love depends on a little salt. If you’re an athlete or even a weekend warrior, maintaining a healthy level of sodium is especially important, particularly in hot weather. The problem is that we love sodium too much, and an excess of salt in your diet is not good. 

It’s especially a challenge for people on the go. Whether you’re racing to catch a connecting flight, trying to grab a quick lunch before your next meeting, or snacking on a bag of salted peanuts during your next flight, you might be shocked at how much sodium you’re consuming. And if you’re dining out, be especially careful. Even when you think you’re eating healthy, you might be surprised at how much sodium a chef actually dumps into salad dressing, chicken wings, even Chicken Noodle Soup. 

(See below for a chart of sample grocery items, prepared foods and restaurant items. Prepare to cringe.)

The USDA recommends that we consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, and certain individuals, representing half of the US population, shouldn’t  exceed 1,500 mg., including African-Americans, people over 51, children as well as anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. By contrast, the average American adult - 9 of 10 of us - go far beyond that - more like 3,400 mg. or more every day. Yikes.

Why does this matter? Because excess levels of sodium/salt can put you at risk for lots of wonderful things, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart Failure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stomach Cancer
  • Kidney Disease
  • Kidney Stones
  • Enlarged Heart Muscle
  • Headaches

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, higher intake of salt can cause a 23 percent increase in the incidence stroke and a 14 percent increase in heart disease. Oh, and did we mention that increased water retention resulting from excess sodium can make you puffy, bloated and help you gain weight? You get the idea.

So in a world of fast food, too little time, planes to catch and plethora of junk food, how can you keep your sodium intake under control? Below are some tips:

  1. When you’re not traveling, consider cooking at home. The restaurant industry won’t like that (we’ll offer some ideas for healthy restaurant dining in a moment), but if you’re at risk for heart problems or stroke, this is an important option. By cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients and not prepared or frozen foods, you can dramatically cut your sodium. Not only is freshly cooked food more tasty, it takes less time than you can imagine. In fact, in the time it would take you dash to the drive-thru of a local fast food joint, you could have made a wonderful dinner while slashing the sodium intake. 
  2. Read the ingredient and nutrition labels on foods you buy. From breakfast cereals to breads, cheese, frozen foods and more, if you look closely at the ingredients and the nutritional label, your eyes might pop at how much sodium lurks inside (cough, cough, Lean Cuisine, cough, cough). Look closely. That package of roasted turkey slices, soup or low-cal salad dressing might sound healthy, but inside could lurk tons of added salt. When you can, use fresh ingredients instead. Not only will everything taste better, but you can control how much sodium you consume more easily. 
  3. Avoid salty foods and snacks at home and on the road. That includes frozen, canned and other packaged foods at home. Carefully read the nutritional label on the back of any packaged food. If a flight attendant hands you a bag of salted peanuts, graciously hand them back. Avoid grabbing a salty cheeseburger and salty fries at an airport or on the go. In your hotel room, ignore that bag of potato chips or dried salty nuts in the honor bar. Instead of a high sodium salad dressing, ask the waiter for sliced lemons or balsamic vinegar (and if you prefer, olive oil).  On the road, ask your waiter for a nutritional menu, or search for it online before you go out. 
  4. Use a diet tracking app or website. If you own an iPhone, iPad or Android, there are excellent apps/websites such as Lose It!, MyNetDiary and CalorieKing as three great examples. Each of these let you see nutritional details for just about anything you eat from their vast databases, from fresh meats, fruits, vegetables to prepared or packaged foods as well as menu items from a wide variety of restaurants. This way, you can keep track of your calories, fat, carbs, protein, fiber and yes, sodium. They’re indispensable to keeping your sodium intake at healthy levels. 
  5. Be wary of restaurant foods and drinks, even those that don’t taste salty. Excessive sodium lurks in treats like sweet blended coffee drinks, doughnuts and cookies, which often contain several hundred milligrams per serving. Menu items that seem healthy are often drowning in sodium. (See below for a chart of sample menu items from some of America’s most popular restaurant chains. You might be surprised.)
  6. Do your homework before dining out. Whether you’re going to a restaurant on a business trip, on a date, or even racing through an airport, plan in advance, and see if the restaurant publishes a nutrition menu. Today, many restaurants publish a nutritional menu on their website. If they don’t, ask your waiter if their chief has this information. 
  7. Fresh unprocessed foods and water are your friend. Choosing minimally processed foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and lean proteins is smart. They’re naturally lower in sodium than more processed food. Eating foods rich in potassium such as bananas, avocados, celery, dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit help restore a normal sodium and potassium balance in your body. Look for healthier alternatives for on-the-go meal replacements, including plain Greek yogurt, good protein bars, apples, a bag of plain unsalted almonds and other smart choices. And be sure to drink plenty of water - it doesn’t get much better than good old H2O. When you're dehydrated, your body naturally holds on to fluids, which can contribute to puffy skin under your eyes. You’ll look better, and feel better too.

Below are sample grocery store and restaurant menu items. Compare these to a recommended 1,500-2,300 daily sodium limit. (You may be surprised that some healthy-sounding entrees have more salt than a classic burger.) Choosing healthy, unprocessed alternatives, opting for fresh ingredients, and doing your homework in advance can make a huge difference. Here’s to your health.

Source for samples below: Calorie King

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