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We’re getting too much salt in the diet, largely from processed foods and restaurant items. There are several hidden sources of salt and health risks that can be associated with them.
Lately, we’ve been witnessing nutritional crackdowns on several fronts—the dangers of excess calories, fats, trans fats and sugars have all been recent targets. It seems, though, that salt (or, more technically, sodium chloride) is finally getting its turn in the spotlight.
Maybe it’s because we’re well aware of the risks of excess calories from fats and sweets by now. And we can easily witness the toll of excess calories in the form of an obesity epidemic. But the problems related to taking in too much sodium are not so in your face. You generally don’t see or feel the effects unless you’re face-to-face with a blood pressure machine.
There’s no question that we love salt—and the craving is natural. Long before we had salt shakers, the pleasant flavor of sodium in plant foods may have been nature’s way to entice us to eat them . It’s not just to get the sodium, but to ensure that we got plenty of other important minerals, like potassium, that naturally tag along.
The remarkable thing about salt—and probably the reason we crave it so—is that it does so much more than just make foods taste salty. Salt makes sweet foods taste sweeter (ever see anyone sprinkle salt on watermelon?), it decreases bitterness, it enhances aromas, and it even improves ‘mouthfeel’—a term used to describe all the complex sensations we experience when we put food in our mouths.
We do need some sodium in the diet, but there’s a huge divide between how much we should be eating and what we’re actually consuming. The recommended daily sodium intake is about 2300 mg (and even less if you’re over 50). That’s a tall order when men are taking in, on average, more than 4000 mg of sodium a day—what you’d get from about 1 ½ teaspoons of salt—and women eat about 3000.
The problem is that sodium is so hard to avoid. There is so much salt in processed foods and restaurant fare that even if you never picked up a salt shaker, you’d probably be eating too much sodium. We get heaps of it from cheeses, lunch meats, condiments, snack foods and soups.
Restaurant items are a double threat. Not only are the chefs heavy-handed with the salt shaker, but the portions tend to be huge, too. A rack of baby back ribs (not even counting the sides) from your local barbecue joint can pack nearly two day’s worth of sodium.
You can start by cutting out the obvious things, like salty snacks, canned soups, and heavily processed foods. Read labels at the store, and look for low sodium versions of packaged foods, like beans, tuna and vegetables. Preparing more foods from scratch can make a huge difference, too. Not only can you control the salt, but you can make dishes taste even better by seasoning with strongly flavored spices, herbs, lemon, onion and garlic.