By Sara Rider
Popcorn. Salted peanuts. Potato chips. We expect some foods to be salty. But other foods—organic canned tomatoes, a can of soup, or a salad with dressing, we don’t expect to be high in sodium. In fact, we may think we are eating well when we choose them; or that we’re making good food choices for our families when we serve them.
How wrong we can be
Over the last two decades, Americans have often focused on the amount of fat in foods. If we read the label on something we were buying, or if we went online to check the nutritional information for a restaurant menu, we looked at the fat grams. But below the fat on that label lurked another vital piece of information that most of us overlooked—the amount of sodium.
How much is enough?
We all need sodium to live. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is an essential element that our bodies need to function properly. The American Heart Association (AHA) says that salt helps our nerves and muscles work. To do this, we need about 500 mg a day, says AHA. The problems start when the amount of that essential element starts to balloon well above what we need for survival.
“Eating too much sodium can affect your health in different ways,” says Dr. Caitlin Giesler, a cardiologist with the Seton Heart Institute. “In the general population, it raises blood pressure considerably. It can bring on heart failure in people who are already predisposed to it. And both of these things can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke and even death.”
So how much salt should we consume? “For all of us, less than 2,000 mg a day is optimal,” explains Dr. Giesler, “and 2,500 mg is probably okay. For people with heart disease, I recommend 1,500 mg a day and certainly no more than 2,000 mg a day.”
That may sound like a lot of sodium, but those milligrams can add up quickly. And if you divide 2,000 mg by three meals—with no snacks—then you’re looking at less than 700 mg per meal each day.
“If you bake, a teaspoon of salt has 590 mg,” continues Dr. Giesler. So something you bake at home may have more sodium per serving than you realize. The lowest source of sodium? Foods that aren’t processed.
Where sodium lives
“Most non-processed foods have naturally occurring small amounts of sodium, but not high amounts. The sodium in non-processed foods like fruits and vegetables is low, particularly compared to what you’re getting in processed foods.”
For example, a can of Hunt’s diced tomatoes in sauce has 310 mg of sodium per serving. And a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup has 890 mg per serving.
“When you start looking at the labels, you’ll notice that a frozen dinner has over 700 mg of sodium a serving. And if you consider what your serving size actually is, you may actually be eating two servings at one time,” adds Dr. Giesler. In addition to contributing to heart problems, a high-sodium diet can cause problems for the kidneys.
“High sodium intake causes fluid retention, and that can put a strain on the kidneys,” says Dr. Giesler. “But the high blood pressure that the high sodium can cause also affects the kidneys. It can be a vicious cycle of worsening high blood pressure, fluid retention and kidney failure.”
Avoiding a future problem
While American diets may be too high in sodium, for many Americans this extra sodium may not be an immediate problem.
“For most people, it’s not something they have to worry about immediately,” admits Dr. Gielser. “But I think that it’s something for parents to be concerned about. Whatever you’re feeding your kids right now is what they’re learning to like. So if you’re feeding them a bunch of high-sodium foods, that’s really going to be a hard habit to break later on.” And since a two-year-old eventually becomes a 40-year-old, a lifelong taste for salt can be harmful to future health when other problems like heart disease or kidney disease start to appear.
“The number one problem is fast food. And I know it’s hard to not eat fast food when you have kids, but it’s possible to avoid it,” encourages Dr. Giesler. “Certainly, if it’s a huge part of your weekly menu, you need to plan better so you don’t have to stop for fast food.”
A quick look at nutritional information available online from some of the most popular fast food chains emphasizes her point: a McDonald’s QuarterPounder® with cheese has 1,100 mg of sodium, while a Premium McWrap Southwest Grilled Chicken has 1,280 mg. The KFC Original Recipe® chicken breast has 1,130 mg and a grilled chicken breast has 730 mg. The Taco Bell Cantina Bowl with Chicken has 1,450 mg. One of their lower sodium choices is the Chicken Chalupa Supreme®, with only 530 mg.*
“The next step is to limit processed foods,” continues Dr. Giesler. “Macaroni and cheese is easy and the kids love it, but it’s high in salt. So even if you’re going to give them some of that, accompany it with fresh fruits and vegetables so that it’s not their entire meal and that their palate does know other options and other tastes.”
Keeping up with your salt intake
Dr. Giesler suggests keeping a list for several days “just to see how much sodium you and your family are actually eating.”
“Bread is a primary source of sodium, as is almost any food you eat out. Even a salad can be very salty, because the dressing and any meat on a dinner salad is usually very salty,” says Dr. Giesler. “Invariably, the restaurant will also add tortilla chips or seeds that are usually salted.”
“But I think you really do have to experiment to see how much salt you are consuming as a family. Find out where you’re getting too much salt and then target those areas. Make a plan, and then actually do it.” That includes switching to no-salt options for canned foods and increasing the amount of fresh food in the family diet. Dr. Giesler suggests giving your efforts to lower salt a two-month trial.
“You’ll find that you get accustomed to it and like it, and then other stuff starts tasting very salty.” To kick your family salt habit, Dr. Giesler also recommends cooking with fresh herbs and spices as well as garlic and shallots. “Then you don’t need the salt.”
“But teaching your family early on to not eat a high-sodium diet will really help their health long term, because these habits are hard to break later in life.”
* Source: McDonald’s USA Nutrition Facts, KFC Nutrition Information, and Full Nutrition Information Taco Bell on the McDonald’s, KFC, and Taco Bell websites