How many times have you ordered McDonald’s french fries, preloaded with salt, and made sure to add even more salt to it? Or how about immediately reaching for the salt shaker when your fav dish arrives at the table, even though it’s likely the chef has already flavoured it? Yes, that’s how much we, as a society, love salt. And why wouldn’t we? Salt tastes great. Plus, it’s an essential mineral that keeps the body functioning. Found in every cell of the body, salt (comprised of sodium and chloride) works with potassium to regulate the fluid balance of the body, control the acid-base balance, and creates an electrical charge for muscle contraction and conduction of nerve impulses. Sodium is also important for hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, which we need to digest our food, and it helps in the transport of amino acids from the gut into the blood.
However, we must keep in mind what they say about having too much of a good thing, which salt is no exception to. Too much salt can cause stress, kidney failure, obesity, and high blood pressure (which can lead to strokes or heart attacks). In Canada alone, 14,000 deaths per year are a result of eating too much sodium; a problem that is completely preventable, simply by cutting back on the amount of salt we consume.
So just how much is too much?
Public health organizations have set the maximum daily amount of sodium intake at 2300 mg (milligrams), which is about 1 teaspoon. 1500 mg of sodium per day is all the body needs to maintain health, and is the recommended limit for people with high blood pressure or other salt-related health problems. To put this into context, let’s look at a popular dinner choice for most – pizza. One slice of veggie pizza has 420 mg of sodium. A slice of pepperoni, 520 mg. Most people can, and will, eat half a pizza in one sitting. That’s over 2000 mg of salt being consumed in just one meal; well over what the body needs and pretty darn close to reaching the daily maximum.
How can you reduce your salt intake?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. More home cooking, less restaurant dining. Eating out is super convenient and tasty, there’s no doubt about that. But you can also expect those meals to be heavy on the salt, even though you may just be ordering a salad. One serving of the Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad from Wendy’s has 1990 mg of salt. You can reduce this by more than 70% simply by making your own meals at home so that you can control the salt usage. For the times you do dine out, order wisely. Ask for veggies to be steamed, dressing or sauces on the side (and use sparingly), stay away from deli meats, and limit the use of commercially prepared condiments.
2. Avoid canned foods. Buy fresh where you can. Did you know that one cup of canned tomatoes contains 343 mg of sodium? A typical stew or sauce recipe will call for at least one 980 ml can of tomatoes, which equates to 1344 mg of salt. And that doesn’t include the additional teaspoon of salt you will add for overall flavouring, as per the recipe. Compare that to one cup of fresh tomatoes which has only 9 mg of sodium. Need I say more? Tomatoes freeze well, either whole or pureed, so stock up when they are on sale and store them in your freezer. When using canned beans such as chickpeas or kidney beans, thoroughly rinse them with cold water to wash away some of the salt.
3. Read labels on packages carefully. Take the time to read product labels when shopping, not just the front of the package, but also the nutritional data label and pay attention to the serving size indicated. It’s common for food manufacturers to use smaller serving sizes so that the amount of calories or fats/carbs/sodium appear to be less. They can also be tricky with their marketing, so understand what these common phrases used on food packages really mean:
Reduced sodium – 25% less sodium than its “normal” version of the food
Light in sodium – at least 50% less sodium than its ‘original’ version
Low sodium – contains 140mg or less of sodium per serving
Very low sodium – has 35mg of sodium or less per serving
Sodium-free – has less than 5mg of sodium per serving
4. Eat more natural foods. Almost all wholesome, natural foods will have some sodium in them. However, the amounts won’t be anywhere nearly as high as processed and packaged foods. The added bonus is that natural foods are also packed with nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fibre that the body needs. So try to add more fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds (raw and unsalted) to your daily diet and trim down on the chips, cheese, crackers and take-out food.
Find out how much salt is in your daily diet.
Curious to know what your salt intake looks like? Find out with this handy tool: salt calculator
So the next time you find yourself asking “pass the salt please”, consider opting to pass on the salt instead.
Got a great way to lower your salt intake? Share it with us in the comment box.
1. CBC’s MarketPlace: http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/episodes/2012-2013/the-great-salt-shakedown
2. Hawkins, W. Rex, Eat Right Electrolyte: A Nutritional Guide to Minerals in our Daily Diet, 2006
3. Haas, Elson M., MD., Staying Healthy with Nutrition, 21st Edition
4. Self Nutrition Data: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2684/2