Ok, let’s be honest. Many of us crave salt. French fries, potato chips, etc. … salt makes food taste good! However, most of us have no idea how much salt we consume on a day-to-day basis. But here’s the scary news: Americans, on average, consume more than twice as much salt on a day-to-day basis (3,600-4,800 mg) as the government recommends (1,500-2,300 mg). Our overwhelming consumption of sodium — which largely goes unnoticed by most of us – has a profound impact on our long-term health … and also on our diet and weight.
Now, I should preface this discussion by saying that salt plays an important and necessary role in our diets. As humans, we need to consume some salt on a regular basis to help control the water content (fluid balance) in the body – in this way, salt helps regulate blood pressure. Salt also is used by the muscle and nervous systems for electrical signaling. However, over-consumption of salt appears to have profoundly negative implications for the way we eat and function on a day-to-day basis, as well as how healthy we are over the course of our lifetimes.
Fifty years ago, Americans consumed half as much salt as they do now. That’s because Americans were eating home-cooked meals more often. Back then, Americans were eating fresh, whole foods, and salt was primarily added to food from the salt shaker, at the table. Today, the American diet primarily consists of pre-packaged, processed foods and fast food or restaurant food. And when we eat these foods, we often are not aware that salt has been added to our food for us. As a result, we have little to no control over how much sodium we are consuming. What’s even scarier is that we’ve adapted to these increased salt levels in much the same way that an alcoholic adapts to alcohol: by building tolerance. In other words, over time, we have become more and more tolerant of salt flavor which means that we start to crave much, much higher levels of sodium than we actually need for our bodies to function properly.
Food manufacturers are sneaky: they have figured out that salt sells. Salt improves the flavor of many foods, which means that manufacturers have started adding it to everything: canned vegetables and soups, lunch meats, frozen foods, and condiments such as ketchup and relish. Even sweet products such as soda and candy, and white flour products such as bread, bagels, cakes, and donuts often contain as much as 40% of our daily recommended intake of sodium. And these products taste sweet rather than salty! Don’t assume that the danger lies in pre-packaged food either: restaurants are as guilty — if not more guilty — than anyone. Restaurants — especially low-quality restaurants such as diners and fast food joints — add as much as 6,000 mg of sodium to a single meal! Meaning you get 3x as much sodium as you need on a day-to-day basis in one sitting. Scary.
How profound are the health consequences of eating too much salt? Well, for starters, let’s address the short-term effects. When we eat salty foods, we start a cycle of salty/sweet cravings that can doom our diets. After eating salty foods, we tend to crave something sweet — which means we eat something sugary like candy. The sugar gives us a temporary spike in energy, which is followed shortly thereafter by an energy crash. When we are low in energy, we tend to eat to wake ourselves up. Which means that we go for another salty snack, which sets us up for a sweet craving, and the cycle continues like this for most of us, day in and day out.
Secondly, salt makes you thirsty. Which means that when you eat salty foods, you will likely crave a beverage soon afterward. And sadly, most of us don’t reach for water when we drink. Instead, we consume a sugary and usually calorie-laden drink like soda or juice, or we reach for a caffeinated beverage like soda or coffee. Diet soda isn’t any better: it’s loaded with sodium and contains tons of synthetic compounds.
Thirdly, salt increases water retention — which means that when we eat too much salt, we carry around excess water weight. Now, I do NOT recommend that you stop eating salt altogether to lose weight — as I mentioned, salt is necessary for our bodies’ basic functioning, and any weight you would lose is simply water weight (not fat, which is the real concern). However, bringing your salt intake into line with nutritional guidelines is a good way to regulate your water retention.
Let’s move to the long-term health effects of salt over-consumption, which are numerous and quite frightening. Studies have shown that eating too much salt increases blood pressure, and can lead to hypertension, stroke and cardiovascular disease. The amazing truth is that if Americans reduced their salt intake by as little as 400 mg per day, over 200,000 lives could be saved over the course of the next 10 years. And if Americans halved their salt intake (to 1,500 mg per day), that many lives could be saved every single year. These effects would be even more profound for African Americans and women.
So how do you reduce your sodium consumption?? The best way to regulate your salt intake is to follow these three suggestions:
(1) Start reading the sodium content on nutrition labels. There are many things you should be paying attention to when you read a nutrition label (calories, fiber, sugar, fat, saturated fat, etc. … more to come on that in a later post!) … but for the purposes of this post you should be paying attention to 2 things: serving size, and sodium content. Determine how much sodium is in one serving size and be honest with yourself about how many servings you are actually eating. My suggestion is to aim for less than 2,000 mg of sodium per day for great health over the long-term. If the food doesn’t contain a nutrition label, look up the nutritional facts online (thank goodness for the internet!). Once you start educating yourself on which foods are high-sodium, it will be easier to avoid them. Plus, you’ll be a smarter and more educated consumer!
(2) Reduce your consumption of restaurant food and fast food so that it becomes a treat rather than a regular part of your diet. Restaurants — even really good restaurants — add more salt and butter than you might ever imagine to food to make it taste good. As a result, I recommend avoiding restaurant and fast food as much as possible. When you do go out to eat, let it be a treat: a once-a-week indulgence or less. I recommend starting with a salad for an appetizer, and ask for the dressing on the side so that you can regulate how “dressed” your salad actually gets. A salad not only contains less salt than other appetizers, it also fills your stomach with low-calorie, fiber-rich veggies before you dig into a salty, calorie-rich entree – which means that over the course of a meal, you’ll eat less salt, less calories, and less fat. You can also tell the waiter that you are on a low-salt diet, and ask for all your food to be prepared with little to no sodium. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate this request. Any salt you add to your food once it hits the table will, therefore, be under your control.
The other amazing side benefit of not eating so much restaurant/fast food is that you inevitably have to learn how to cook. Cooking is an amazing life skill, and in my opinion an absolutely essential skill to be able to maintain a healthy diet and long-term overall wellbeing. In addition to putting you more in touch with the food that actually makes it onto your plate and into your stomach, cooking helps you regulate your salt intake by putting the control in your own hands. Plus, it forces you to learn how to incorporate fresh, whole foods into your diet … which brings us to …
(3) Start eating whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and fresh meats. Eating fresh, whole foods means that you will reduce your consumption of pre-packaged, processed foods. And, as you now know, processed foods are all too often loaded with sodium (this includes “snack foods” like chips and pretzels and candy, as well as pre-packaged frozen meals, lunch meats, canned soups and broths, etc.). “Whole foods” are those typically found on the edges of the grocery store: fresh produce, freshly baked goods, milk, unprocessed cheeses, natural yogurts, eggs, and fresh (not pre-packaged) meats. Avoid the center aisles of the grocery store where you will find row upon row of processed foods (sodas, chips, crackers, cookies, candy, canned soups, etc.).
Eating more whole foods usually entails a bit more planning ahead. In other words, you will need to make sure that you have whole foods on hand instead of relying on vending machines and drive through windows. For example, instead of a bag of pretzels or a Kit Kat bar, eat a piece of fruit for a snack or have a handful of raw almonds. Instead of eating a frozen meal or a can of soup for lunch, eat a salad and mix oil/vinegar for dressing. Rather than buying a can of chicken noodle soup from the store, make your own at home — which means you can control how much salt you add to it. Pay attention to your condiments as well: ketchup and relish and soy sauce are surprisingly salty. Replace ketchup with sliced, fresh tomatoes; make your own relish at home; and buy low-sodium soy sauce or use Braag liquid aminos instead (Braag liquid aminos tastes quite similar to soy sauce!).
The beauty of making these 3 changes is that you’ll notice a profound shift in how you eat and how you feel on a day-to-day basis. Many people notice a difference in the first few weeks after making these changes. Even more importantly, you’ll be taking control over your long-term health, and thus your quality of life, as you age — and you might even add a few years onto your life. Now that’s a statement worth its salt.
Until next time …