The modern American diet is perilous to navigate indeed. You’ve probably heard from doctors, dieticians, and other health experts that you should cut out salt. But why, and how? As a practicing nephrologist (kidney doctor), I address the salt issue with my patients a lot.
What a Low Sodium Diet Looks Like
Sodium is an element that is found in many foods as well as water. The body requires a small amount of sodium in the diet to control blood pressure and blood volume. However, due to salt’s ability to preserve food for long periods of time, most people consume many times the amount of sodium than is needed. A healthy level of sodium in the diet contains fewer than 2.3 grams (2300 milligrams, or about the amount of sodium in one teaspoon) of sodium each day. People with certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, and heart problems can benefit from a diet that is lower in sodium.
Why Should I reduce Sodium in my Diet?
Reducing sodium intake lowers blood pressure in people with high and borderline high blood pressure. It also helps to prevent of fluid in the lower legs or abdomen. People with chronic kidney disease and heart failure must control sodium intake to prevent volume overload, which increases blood pressure and causes swelling. Switching from a higher-sodium diet to a lower-sodium diet can modestly reduce blood pressure in people who have normal blood pressure. When the sodium intake is lowered from 4000 mg to 2000 mg per day, blood pressure falls by 2 to 3 mmHg.
When you cut out salt, it helps with weight loss, reduces the risk of stroke, kidney stones and osteoporosis. It also reduces bloat (less water retention), and a host of other benefits.
Where is Sodium Found?
In our diet it mainly hidden in packaged, processed foods and in foods from restaurants. It is pretty much in any food that comes in a packing. I tell patients that if you must open ‘a packet, a can or container’ – don’t eat it! It likely has a high sodium content.
Please look at the label even if it claims to have “low sodium.” Unfortunately, the processed food industry’s version of “low” rarely meets medical standards in terms of health.
A ‘low sodium diet’ means less than 2400 mg PER DAY only!
There are some conditions such as severe heart failure where patients are advised to consume even less (1500 to 1800 mg per day).
Reading labels is extremely valuable and helpful.
How Do I Cut Down on Sodium?
Although it is difficult to cut back on the amount of sodium in the diet, most people find that their taste adjusts quickly to reduced sodium. Salt is an acquired taste, and taste buds can be retrained in less than one to two weeks if people stick with the lower-sodium diet. Fresh herbs, spice blends without sodium, citrus, and flavored vinegar make tasty alternatives to the salt shaker.
Some Suggestions to Help You Out
When cooking, try forfeiting the salt shaker in favor of herbs, spices, garlic, onions, or lemon instead.
Make a list of healthy low-sodium foods to substitute. Many grocery stores now supply this information.
When dining out, request the food be prepared without salt, have dressings or sauces on the side, and avoid bacon bits, cheese, and croutons at the salad bar.
Avoid eating at fast food restaurants.
Do not use salt substitutes that are high in potassium. Chervil, parsley, basil, dill weed, tarragon, and turmeric are some examples.
Water softeners remove calcium and add sodium to drinking water. Do not drink softened water. When purchasing bottled water, check the label to ensure that it does not contain sodium.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. In addition, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides additional benefits in lowering blood pressure. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a well-known intervention to treat high blood pressure.