Last week, I attended a sodium summit (“Getting to 2,300”) in Washington, DC. A follow-up to the initial summit five years ago, this year’s summit was hosted by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) and National Restaurant Association (NRA). The goal of the day-long meeting was to continue the honest discussion on sodium—why we eat so much of it, why there’s so much of it in our foods and how we can reduce the amount we eat, particularly in processed and restaurant foods.
As you can imagine, there were some big players in the room. And, most everyone was focused on how to reduce sodium consumption in this country. Nothing I heard was earth-shattering, but it was a good reminder that sodium–in a world that so often focuses on calories, fat and carbs–sometimes sneaks under the “trying to eat healthfully” radar.
The biggest sodium culprits
As Ursula Bauer, PhD, MPH, Director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) (the arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that focuses on preventing chronic disease, like heart disease) discussed at the summit, the average sodium intake for Americans 2 years of age and older is >3,400 mg/day. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010 DGA) recommends to keep sodium intake below 2,300 mg/day for most adults and closer to 1,500 mg/day for the specific populations at greatest risk for hypertension, or high blood pressure. About 1 in 3 adults has hypertension and only about half of these adults have blood pressure under control. And, the science is solid… the relationship between sodium intake and blood pressure is direct and clear.
So, what does 2,300 mg/day look like? About one teaspoon of salt. That’s our goal for the entire day. That’s not a lot. Especially when you consider most of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods. And, surely we don’t eat that much processed food, right?
Think again. According to American Public Media’s Marketplace, processed foods make up 70% of the American diet. Yup, 70%. And, the CDC reported that about 11% of the American diet comes from fast food. No matter how you shake it, that’s a lot of sodium without even adding salt at the table.
I hesitate to list the biggest culprits, because I don’t believe any foods are off-limits in a healthy, well-rounded diet. But, some of the biggest culprits repeatedly surprise my clients. And, it’s difficult to make informed food choices if you’re not informed. So, here are the biggest sodium culprits…
- Bread, rolls
- Cold cuts, cured meats
- Pasta dishes
- Meat dishes
Again, it’s not about eliminating these foods completely. Eating healthfully means choosing low-sodium foods MOST of the time and indulging in other foods some of the time.
Why food products need sodium
Unfortunately, lowering the sodium content of food products is just not as easy as removing sodium.
Sodium serves many purposes in food products. There are the obvious reasons why sodium is added to foods. It helps foods taste good and even helps bring out the natural flavor of foods. Sodium helps food products, like breads and cheeses, maintain a uniform texture and consistency. And, perhaps even more importantly, sodium helps prevent food spoilage and inhibits the growth of bacteria and molds that could cause serious food-borne illnesses. Understandably, food companies are not willing to sacrifice food safety. One speaker summed it up this way: “We will not compromise on food safety and our consumers will not compromise on taste.”
Fitting in favorite foods
As I mentioned above, I don’t believe there are “good foods” and “bad foods.” Eating–for most people–is just not that simplistic. We are surrounded by processed foods. We are crammed for time. The best way for us to make peace with these high-sodium convenience foods and attempt to prevent heart disease is to make wise food choices most of the time.
1) Eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins (without sauces or breading), nuts/seeds and nut/olive oils. Foods that are as close to their natural state as possible will naturally contain less sodium.
2) Add a salad, vegetables or fruit to your restaurant or convenience meal. Not only are most fruits and vegetables naturally low in sodium, they are rich in potassium, which helps to counter the sodium in that convenience or restaurant meal. By simply adding a veggie- or fruit-rich salad or side, you’re automatically lowering the sodium content of that restaurant or packaged meal.Pretty cool how that works, huh?
3) Vote with your dollar by buying the low-sodium or no-sodium-added products or meals. Many food companies and restaurants now offer lower sodium products and dishes. Show these companies–who are trying to offer a healthier solution–that you want these low-sodium offerings. The bottom line is… food companies and restaurants will NOT continue to offer low sodium options if no one buys them.
TELL US: Do you try to eat a low-sodium diet? If so, please share your tips and favorite low-sodium products and dishes. We’d love to hear from you.