Tips to control sodium intake
Health professionals advise all Americans to watch their intake of calories, fats, carbohydrates and sodium.
Often, it's the last one that's hardest to do.
First, it's in about everything we eat, especially convenience foods for today's fast-paced lifestyles. According to the American Heart Association, 75 percent of our sodium comes from processed foods such as soups, canned foods and prepared mixes.
Second, it tastes good.
Dr. Roger Dreiling, of Cardiovascular Consultants in Lawrence, said his rule of medicine is "if it tastes good or if it feels good, it's bad for you."
On a more serious note, he said that we are born without a taste for salt, but become acclimated to it as we grow up.
The average American consumes between 6,000 and 18,000 milligrams of salt daily. The body only needs about 200 milligrams. The American Heart Association's recommendation is a daily consumption of less than 2,300 milligrams, or one teaspoon.
Dreiling advises people to follow such recommendations because later in life they will be less likely to develop hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, which leads to heart disease and stroke.
Hypertension, which is a blood pressure higher than 140/90 mmHg, affects one out of every three adults. A Kansas Department of Health and Environment survey found about 557,000 Kansans, or 27 percent, were diagnosed with hypertension in 2007.
"Americans are eating too much salt," Dreiling said. "I see a lot of patients who should be on a low-sodium diet."
They just aren't following his advice. Unfortunately, he said many Americans would rather take a pill than alter their diet.
"You know, substituting medicine so you can eat what you want is not going to work," Dreiling said.
But he admits a low-sodium diet isn't easy. The food tends to taste like cardboard in the beginning. Also, many of his patients have grown children who have left home, so they are just cooking for one or two. That means they typically eat soup and a sandwich for lunch, which might seem healthy but both can be chock-full of sodium.
"So, cooking a low-salt lunch is darn near impossible for one person or two people," Dreiling said. "Salt is ubiquitous. It's everywhere."
Mattie Neely, 56, of Lawrence, knows that all too well. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure about 10 years ago. Since then, she has limited her salt intake as much as possible.
Neely said at first, she headed to the canned goods section in the grocery because it was cheaper and easier to make a meal. She had to change that.
"It was very difficult because every time you go grocery shopping you have to look at and read a lot of the labels to see how much sodium is in each thing you buy."
She's also altered her cooking at home.
"We use a lot of chicken and a lot of (salt substitute Mrs.) Dash and black pepper. I cook with a lot of onions and garlic and things like that to give it flavor," Neely said.
She's also not afraid to ask about low-sodium foods at restaurants. She typically goes to Jade Mongolian Barbeque, 1511 W. 23rd St., where she can pick her meat, vegetables and, more importantly, sauce, and then the chefs cook it in front of her.
"Not having the salt makes a big difference," she said. "I have to give up a lot of different things like macaroni and cheese, but it's worth it."
She said her taste buds have changed as well. Sometimes when she tries a bite of someone else's food, Neely will think it's extremely salty, but her friend won't notice it.
"I can sense that salt in there, but it doesn't bother the next person," she said.
Acquiring a new taste
Carol Gilmore, Lawrence Memorial Hospital's assistant director of Food and Nutrition Services, said it only takes six to eight weeks for people to adjust to a lower level of sodium.
"You can unlearn your preference for salt, but you have to give yourself an opportunity to do that," she said.
Her recommendation on how to get there: Don't go cold turkey. Start by cutting back on table salt and then slowly ramp it down by purchasing lower sodium items. Once there, start eliminating high sodium foods such as sauerkraut and deli meats.
She suggests eating more fruits, fresh or frozen vegetables and whole grains.
"Sometimes, it doesn't take a lot of change for some individuals to see a significant benefit," Gilmore said.
Gilmore, who has been a dietitian for about 30 years, said adults spend a lot of time on other activities, but when it comes to food shopping, they tend to skimp.
"We need to kind of make the grocery store a little bit of a hobby and do some label reading and just see what's available," she said. "Education is power and helps you make better food choices and better decisions."
For example, during a recent grocery shopping excursion she pointed out two types of spaghetti sauces. The first one had the American Heart Association's "heart healthy" label on the front and the second one didn't have any special label. But according to the nutrition labels on the back of the jars, the second one had about half of the sodium, while the calories and fat content were nearly the same.
To be labeled "heart healthy," an individual food cannot exceed 480 milligrams of sodium per serving and a meal-type product can't exceed 600 mg.
Another example was found in the cereal aisle. While the boxes of Frosted Mini Wheats had no "heart healthy label" like the boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats next to them, they had significantly less sodium. For a 59-gram serving, they had 5 milligrams of sodium, 1 gram of fat and 200 calories. The honey roasted cereal had 120 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 150 milligrams of sodium for a 30-gram serving.
"So, you have to be label smart because as you can see you've got options if you take the time to look," she said.
Also, don't be afraid to ask grocery workers for help. The butchers can point out items that have less salt. For an 8-ounce serving of pork, you can buy one with 120 milligrams over their counter for $2.50 compared with a packaged one with 660 milligrams of sodium for $2.09.
Gilmore, who considers grocery shopping a hobby, said food manufacturers are beginning to offer more products for those watching their salt intake. She has noticed even more options in the past month.
"They've really gotten on the bandwagon," she said.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association is glad she has noticed.
Scott Openshaw, director of communications for the association, said the food industry is working collaboratively with many stakeholders including the government to help consumers achieve dietary guideline recommendations including that for sodium.
He said many no-salt-added, lightly salted, low sodium and sodium-free products have been introduced into the market.
"Food companies have been very successful at making incremental reductions in salt levels in popular products gradually over time, silently, while continuing to meet consumer taste preferences," Openshaw said.
Of course, some can be tough to swallow.
"I've tried the salt-free bread," Neely said, laughing, "and I just can't seem to do that one."