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Sodium — the main component of salt — is an essential nutrient. But the average American takes in far more than the amount considered healthy. Increased sodium puts us at greater risk for high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks or stroke. Because nearly 90 percent of middle-aged Americans will develop high blood pressure at some point in their lives, now is the time to shake the salt habit.
The American Heart Association recommends that you choose and prepare foods that are naturally low in sodium, with a goal of eating less than 1, 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. You and your loved ones will get to savor an array of wonderful new tastes, and your heart will return the favor.
Step It Down
Because so much of the food we currently eat contains high levels of sodium, it's admittedly difficult to go cold turkey and cut your daily intake to 1, 500 mg right away. A good approach is to start by limiting yourself to 2, 300 mg of sodium a day, then gradually lowering that figure over the course of several weeks until you reach the goal of 1, 500 mg. One effective way to do it: Avoid eating processed or packaged foods, which tend to be high in sodium, and start cooking simple foods from scratch. You'll begin to appreciate foods for their true flavor, and your taste buds will happily adapt.
Make a Fresh Start
Begin your journey toward lower sodium with these simple steps:
- Choose fresh, frozen, or canned food items without added salts.
- Select unsalted nuts or seeds, dried beans, peas, and lentils.
- Avoid adding salt and canned vegetables with added sodium to homemade dishes.
- Choose unsalted, lower-sodium, fat-free broths, bouillons, and soups.
- Add fresh lemon juice instead of salt to fish and vegetables.
- Use vinegar or citrus juice as a flavor enhancer for greens and other vegetables, adding them at the last moment.
- For more "bite" in your meals, add a small amount of fresh hot peppers. Remove the membrane and seeds first, then finely chop them.
- If scratch cooking is too time-consuming to do daily, cook several dishes on a Sunday night, and freeze the meals for the week.
Become a Seasoned Cook
One of the most fun and creative ways to add flavor to your home-cooked meals is to experiment with spices and herbs, which naturally contain very small amounts of sodium. For the freshest and fullest flavor, grind fresh herbs with a mortar and pestle. Use small amounts of dried herbs for a more pungent flavor.
Here are just some of the zesty options:
- Basil: fish, lamb, lean ground meats, stews, salads, soups, sauces, fish cocktails
- Chives: salads, sauces, soups, lean meat dishes, vegetables
- Curry powder: lean meats (especially lamb), veal, chicken, fish, tomatoes, tomato soup, mayonnaise
- Dill: fish sauces, soups, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, cucumbers, potatoes, salads, macaroni, lean beef, lamb, chicken, fish
- Garlic (not garlic salt): lean meats, fish, soups, salads, vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes
- Onion powder (not onion salt): lean meats, stews, vegetables, salads, soups
- Paprika: lean meats, fish, soups, salads, sauces, vegetables
- Rosemary: chicken, veal, lean meat loaf, lean beef, lean pork, sauces, stuffing, potatoes, peas, lima beans
- Sage: lean meats, stews, biscuits, tomatoes, green beans, fish, lima beans, onions, lean pork
- Thyme: lean meats (veal, lean pork), sauces, soups, onions, peas, tomatoes, salads
Salty Language on Labels
As you strive to reduce your sodium intake, consider food labels to be your health-conscious best friend. When you buy prepared and packaged foods, check the Nutrition Facts panel — the sodium content is listed in milligrams (mg) and in terms of "% Daily Value." Also, be careful about purchasing foods with the words "soda" (referring to sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda) or "sodium, " or the symbol "Na, " in the ingredients list.
Some product packaging includes terms related to sodium. Here's what they mean:
- Sodium free: less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
- Very low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving
- Low sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
- Reduced sodium: usual sodium level is reduced by 25 percent
- Unsalted/no salt added/without added salt: while no salt is added in processing, the food still contains its natural level of sodium
How It Translates
Sodium chloride, or table salt, is approximately 40 percent sodium. Understand just how much sodium is in salt so you can take measures to control your intake.