Watch your salt intake

Admit it.

You stopped worrying about salt. Who can blame you? In terms of food intake, you've been keeping a watchful eye on calories while counting carbs and trying to figure out where all those bad trans fats are hiding.

Now a nutrition watchdog group has decided that most of us need a refresher course on sodium, and plenty of dietitians agree. We're basically swimming in sodium. Take a look at the nutrition label on just about anything, and the salt news probably isn't good.

"If people use the food labels, they'll be surprised," said registered dietitian Sandy Procter with Kansas State Extension and Research.

Stay within the daily limit

It doesn't take many servings of this stuff to soar past the recommended daily limit of 2,300 milligrams, which is about a teaspoon. And too much salt means an increased risk of high blood pressure, a very bad deal for the heart.

Recently the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., sued the Food and Drug Administration to force a crackdown on the amount of sodium in processed food. By defining salt as a "food additive," the organization said, the FDA would have more regulatory authority to limit it.

Some think the advocacy group is more a fearmonger than a watchdog. This is the organization that pointed out several years ago that movie popcorn and Chinese food are crammed with calories and fat.

Saltified groceries are less obvious and more difficult to avoid. Ann Chapman, registered dietitian at the University of Kansas, said store-bought bread is a good example.

Two slices of Earth Grains wheat bread, the package of which trumpets its calcium and notes its lack of trans fats, contains 430 milligrams of sodium. That's nearly 20 percent of the sodium you need all day.

None of this is to say that salt should be banished. It's essential to good health. Calibrating the amount is the issue, and right now the average American eats too much, somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams.

Getting enough potassium, nutritionists say, may help blunt the effects of too much sodium. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a good source.

Develop a taste for less salt

One way to combat all the sodium at the grocery store, dietitians said, is to look for "reduced sodium" or "no salt added" varieties. Consumers nowadays are much better at checking fat and carb grams, Procter said, and they can get just as good at checking sodium on nutrition labels.

Choosing the least processed items will help, but cooking with fresh ingredients is the best solution. If you can't do fresh vegetables, pick frozen over canned. And instead of salt, use fresh garlic and spices.

Perhaps the hardest part, Chapman said, is accepting that food without so much salt won't taste the same. It doesn't have to be bland, she said, but you'll notice the difference.

"We don't need all this sodium that food has been processed with for so long," Chapman said. "Our enjoyment of sodium is a learned behavior. We can unlearn it."

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