A couple of months ago, my husband was advised to adopt a sodium-restricted diet for his health.
I conscientiously did some research to learn what to do. I generally don’t buy a ton of the processed foods where salt lurks, but I found out how challenging it is to step around the pitfalls.
While his restrictions have been relaxed a bit, it still behooves him — and, well, all of us — to keep a sharp eye on our salt intake. After a couple of weeks of experience, I realized that it would be good information to share with readers, and sought an expert to comment.
Jamie Nadeau, a clinical dietitian who works at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts, part of Southcoast Health System, provided some advice.
First, it’s important to know why keeping sodium down is important. Too much salt “puts an extra burden on blood vessels and the heart, and that can lead to high blood pressure, which puts you at risk of heart disease or stroke,” she said. It’s a fact that heart disease is a prominent problem in SouthCoast.
Depending on your health status, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advises a limit of between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 1,500 milligrams for everyone, and estimates that most Americans take in 3,400 milligrams per day.
So, get into the habit of reading labels when you shop. I was surprised to learn that cottage cheese (which most of us think of as a “healthy” food) actually is pretty high in sodium. While rich in protein and calcium, a half-cup serving of our favorite cottage cheese with chives has 18 percent of the recommended daily intake of sodium.
I found out why the regular stuff has all that sodium when I purchased the no-salt added, low-fat variety. It gave new dimension to the adjective “bland.” But I doctored up the no-salt cheese with Mrs. Dash, some minced onion, a finely diced radish or two, some paprika and a generous grind of black pepper, and the result wasn’t half bad on a unsalted saltine (now there’s an oxymoron).
So I already had followed part of Nadeau’s prescription: “A really good way to get used to a low-sodium diet is to add herbs and spices, experiment with herbs you might not have used before.” Mrs. Dash, a no-salt seasoning blend, was one of the products she mentioned. I had already purchased a jar, and found that it comes in a couple of varieties.
“Most of the salt doesn’t come from the salt shaker,” she explained. Seventy-five percent of the sodium we consume is derived from processed, packaged and restaurant food.
Making your own meals from fresh ingredients is the best strategy to control sodium, Nadeau said. But when dining out, she advised, “a lot of restaurants now are offering their nutrition information so that you can choose a low-salt meal.” And, “you can always ask for adaptations” and the kitchen may accommodate you.
When the home cook prepares vegetables, Nadeau said, “fresh is always going to be your best bet, then frozen is next, as long as it doesn’t have anything added.” The frozen veggies with sauces and flavorings should stay in the supermarket freezer. My habit of adding salt when boiling potatoes and carrots has been eliminated.
It’s pretty obvious that deli meats, bacon, hot dogs and cheeses have a lot of salt, but take a look at the label on your loaf of bread and you’ll be surprised at the sodium lurking there. “Bread is one (source of salt) that people don’t expect,” Nadeau said.
I’ve taken to poaching boneless chicken breasts or mixing tuna salad to make sandwiches, rather than filling them with the usual deli ham or turkey. One day I slipped up and shared a can of soup with my husband. While rinsing out the can before putting it in the recycling bin, I was kind of horrified to see that I had just served him 22 percent of his recommended daily allotment of salt.
Another not-so-hidden source of salt is olives, a favorite of his. I knew that olives were a salty food; they’re packed in brine, after all. But I wasn’t aware that one “queen” olive (the big ones) has 7 percent of your daily allowance of sodium. And my husband likes three of those when he treats himself to a martini. Better get used to a twist of lemon instead, I told him.
My point is that even small adjustments can make a measurable difference.
We’d all be better off if we paid more attention to every aspect of what we consume, not just salt. But it’s definitely one factor I resolve to give more heed to as we stride into 2016.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is food editor of The Standard-Times in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeeksSCT