A recent bout of dental work has left me consuming most of my food in liquid form for a few days. While I've disciplined myself to steer clear of milkshakes in pursuit of healthier eating, in my haste yesterday evening, I reached for a can of sippable soup—a food I haven't had in years—knowing full well that canned soups are high in sodium. As the front of the packaging claimed that the soup had only 70 calories, I had far-fetched hopes that the sodium content might follow suit. After all, how much could there possibly be in that little can? A lot, apparently—that little can of soup contained almost 40 percent of my daily sodium intake.
Sodium has taken the spotlight (and not in a good way) this year. Consuming too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure and other more serious health problems such as heart disease—and consuming too much sodium isn't difficult for most Americans in a market filled with sodium-rich foods. Federal dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily (1,500 milligrams for people at risk for high blood pressure), but most Americans consume almost 3,400 milligrams each day. A report from the Institute of Medicine on sodium intake in the United States estimated that a nation-wide sodium-intake reduction (spurred by stricter food regulations from the FDA) could prevent more than 100,000 deaths.
Americans consume an average of seven pounds of salt each year. Decreasing your sodium intake can lower your chances of high blood pressure. Photo By Wen Zhang/Courtesy Flickr.
Although the FDA has acknowledged that our current rate of sodium intake is unhealthy and has begun working on ways to possibly reduce the salt content of packaged food, for the time being the burden is yours to bear. If you're concerned about consuming too much sodium, follow these guidelines and make these simple swaps to reduce your salt intake.
1. Ditch canned soup in favor of homemade soup. My sippable soup doesn't stand alone in the world; canned soup is one the biggest culprits of sodium excess. Many canned soups contain almost half of your daily allowance. Although canned soup might be quick and convenient, homemade soup is healthier and more satisfying. Making soup at home doesn't have to be time-consuming either. Check out these six quick and inexpensive soup recipes to get started. From a simple yellow split pea soup to a more complex sherried mushroom soup, you're sure to find something appealing.
2. Give frozen dinners the cold shoulder. If you thought canned soup was bad, take a look at the nutrition labels on conventional frozen dinners. Some can contain up to 1,800 milligrams—more than half of your daily allowance. If you can't give up the convenience of frozen dinners, check out the natural foods section of your grocery store for lower-sodium and organic options. If you're feeling a little more flexible, leave those pre-packaged dinners in the deep freeze and indulge in a homemade dinner. Prepare more food than you need so you can freeze leftovers.
Skip the salt and butter to make your popcorn a low-sodium and heart-healthy snack. Photo By Ryan Ritchie/Courtesy Flickr.
3. Put down the salt shaker and pick up the herbs. Pre-packaged and prepared meals aren't the only culprits when it comes to sodium excess. Americans' love of salt extends to their own cooking as well. Instead of adding a few extra dashes of salt to flavor your foods, try infusing flavor through herbs. Many herbs have health as well as culinary benefits, making them a great replacement for regular table salt. For more information on reducing your sodium intake with herbs, check out The Herb Companion's article "Pairing Herbs with Gourmet Cooking Salts."
4. Choose plain popcorn over salty snack foods. If you're looking for a low-sodium snack, reach for popcorn—at least the healthy kind. When I make popcorn, I frequently dub it "A Heart Attack in a Bowl." I like buttery popcorn, and I tend to be very heavy-handed with the salt shaker when it's over a bowl of fresh, warm popcorn. Low in calories but high in antioxidants, fiber and whole grains, popcorn has the potential to be a healthy snack. Instead of pre-packaged, salt-laden, buttery popcorn, pop your own kernels and leave them unsalted—but not unflavored. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil over the popcorn, then season with your favorite herbs and spices. (I enjoy a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese on mine.)
A typical jar of pickles contains salt-saturated brine high in sodium. Make your own pickles to control the amount of salt and reduce the sodium. Photo By EVRT Studio/Courtesy Flickr.
5. Beware of brine. Any type of vegetable that's practically swimming in its juice own is probably drowning in sodium. Meant for food preservation, the brine that pickles, olives, sauerkraut and other such foods come in are almost entirely saturated with salt. Preserve your health by avoiding these foods.
6. Avoid processed meats. In order to preserve and flavor them, many meats are cured using excessive amounts of salt, meaning one serving of roasted or country ham can contain up to half of your daily sodium intake. Always choose fresh, non-preserved meats.
7. Use common sense—eat fresh food! Reducing your sodium intake can be as easy as eating fresh, wholesome, unprocessed foods. Choose fresh produce from your local farmer's market, CSA or grocery store, and look for fresh, naturally raised meats.
How do you avoid eating too much salt?