It’s a simple fact we have known for thousands of years. Salt makes food taste better. It does this by opening up the taste receptors in our taste buds. It’s also an excellent preservative and does much to inhibit the growth of bacteria in cured and smoked foods. Unfortunately, it rapidly reaches a significant point of diminishing returns. The result is hypertension (high blood-pressure), water retention (edema), and a cascade of medical conditions from heart-failure to kidney failure and stroke.
For the record, it’s recommended that we ingest at least 1500 mg (milligrams) of salt a day. This ensures a healthy level of hydration maintaining the fluid in blood cells, neurological transmission of information through our nerves and to our muscles, and to help us absorb nutrients from our small intestines. Our bodies cannot manufacture salt naturally and we would die without it. Unfortunately, many people are dying because of it when the intake exceeds recommended levels over the long-term.
The standard limit for salt intake on a daily basis is 2300 mg. That’s about a teaspoon. A teaspoon can easily allow someone to sufficiently salt there food for flavor all day long. However, there’s a catch. 90% or our daily salt intake comes from the salt added to processed foods. To make matters worse, there is significant salt added to restaurant foods (especially fast-food), and the salt that occurs naturally in meat and vegetables. Collectively, it can quickly take us way over the recommended limit of 2300 mg.
Salt is sodium-chloride and if you read the nutrition labels on the bottles, cans and boxes in your pantry you can find the “sodium” level per serving. Some of what you see will be stunning:
1. Cans of chili with 1000 mg per half-cup serving.
2. Soups with anywhere from 600 to 900 mg for the same half-cup.
3. Condiments, dressings, sauces and marinades from 300 to 500 mg per tablespoon.
4. Boxed side-dishes going as high as a 3000 mg total.
It adds up fast. In fact, if you eat one meal at a fast-food restaurant, use packaged, processed foods for your other meals and add salt to what you eat – you can be in the stratosphere from a salt/sodium standpoint.
The result can be water retention or edema that creates swelling in the legs, ankles and feet; high blood pressure, pulmonary edema that fills your chest and restricts your breathing and the ability of your heart to pump efficiently; shortness of breath, congestive heart-failure, kidney failure and permanent damage to vital organs and ultimately – heart attack, stroke or death.
If that sounds alarmist, consider that reducing the sodium intake by 3000 mg a day reduces the risk of heart disease saving 44,000 people a year according to the CDC. The tough part is that it’s not easy to do, especially when fast-food and consumer-packaged-goods companies seem bound and determined to win the taste war with salt as their primary competitive weapon. So what’s a mother to do?
For starters, stop adding table-salt to recipes or food served at the table. This is a common-sense place to start. Be forewarned that many of us depend on table-salt for iodine (iodized salt), so make sure you serve some foods with natural iodine such as shrimp, shellfish, cranberries, yogurt, Navy beans, strawberries, potatoes and the mega-iodine source: sea vegetables such as seaweed and kelp. You can also take an iodine supplement or a multi-vitamin that has iodine as one of it’s components.
Another good habit is to read the labels as you shop. We tend to focus on calories and fats, but watch the sodium and the serving size. Serving size is where many of us are led astray. It may say 400 mg of sodium on the nutrition label, but if there are 5 servings in a can of tomatoes you need to multiple that 400 by 5 and consider how much of those 2000 milligrams you’re actually going to ingest.
When eating at a restaurant, especially fast-food -ask for or find the nutrition chart. Some of the sodium totals are stunning. You can also go to the company website and find federally mandated nutrition information that includes sodium levels for all items on the menu.
Finally, bring up the subject of sodium with your doctor. They can tell you more about how to manage your salt intake, how it’s currently affecting your health and what steps you may need to take to reduce your risk based on the continuing threat of the salt epidemic.