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Cutting Back on Salt

By:  Reader's Digest

Ten ways to eat well without it.


Ask anyone about salt and they'll tell you it's bad for you. Well, they're wrong. Salt is not bad for you. Your body needs it to function properly. What's bad for you is excessive salt, or actually, the sodium part of salt. Americans consume an estimated 4,000-4,500 mg salt a day. We only need 500 mg a day, and it's recommended we get no more than 2,400 mg a day--about the amount in 1 teaspoon of salt. Look for that number to go down: Nutrition experts are expected to change that  recommendation to 1500 mg a day, which is under 2/3 teaspoon.

Why lower the sodium recommendation? You probably know of sodium's close connection with high blood pressure. But studies also find high sodium intake can lead to heart and kidney problems, as well as osteoporosis and other bone disorders. If you are already suffering from anything from heart complications to fibromyalgia pain, then it's best to re-consider what you're eating and cut down on anything that will cause your body's health to deteriorate.

Surprising fact: Only 25 percent of your daily supply of salt comes from the saltshaker. Most of the rest comes from processed and packaged foods. Manufacturers add loads of sodium to food, both for flavor and to keep it fresh. Even non-salty foods like cereal are loaded with sodium. So the best way to do battle against salt is to cut back on packaged or prepared foods. In addition, try these tips for making your food taste great without all that shaking going on.

1. Stock up on lemon pepper. This seasoning adds wonderful flavor, not sodium, to your vegetables, meats, and starches. Use it freely as a salt substitute.

2. Mix low-sodium foods with regular foods to start you on the path of less sodium intake. Mix no-salt peanuts with regular peanuts, unsalted peanut butter with regular peanut butter, or lite salt with regular salt, suggests Lila Ojeda, R.D., a bionutritionist at Oregon Health Sciences University. Slowly increase the amount of the salt-free product as you decrease the amount of the real thing until you're eating only the salt-free version.

3. Pick chips over pretzels--but only if salt is the main issue in your diet.Pretzels can have four times the salt per serving as potato or tortilla chips. But that's because chips get much of their flavor from being cooked in oil, making them much fattier and higher in calories. Pretzels are baked and contain far less fat, so much of their flavor comes from the salt. The better choice for a crunchy snack: baked potato or tortilla chips, which are relatively low in both fat and sodium.(An even better choice would be an apple or a carrot.)

4. Skip artificial flavorings in chips. That is, say no to barbecue flavor, ranch style, or those sour-cream-and-onion potato chip varieties. Also say no to those fancy flavored corn chips. Those extra flavorings are largely extra salt, and typically double the amount of sodium in a serving.

5. Switch to kosher salt. Because it's coarser, there's less per unit volume. So 1 teaspoon kosher salt has nearly half the sodium of 1 teaspoon table salt. Plus, it's got none of the additives (anticaking agents, whiteners, and iodine).

6. Keep your table salt in a small bowl, and use a tiny spoon or a pinch of your fingers to season your food. You'll find that you use far less of it. Cover it with a snug lid or some plastic wrap to keep it dry (and make it less accessible).

7. Put a big X on your calendar for six weeks from today. Unlike our preference for sugar, which we're born with, salt is an acquired taste, learned from habit. So it takes time to “unlearn” your preference--about six weeks, to be exact. Slowly reduce your intake of salt between now and then, focusing on food categories where the salt will be missed the least, such as cereals, breads, and dessert items. As long as you know you aren't going to stop wanting salty food overnight, you won't get  discouraged.

8. Look out for non-salt sources of sodium. Here's what to watch out for on food labels: sodium, Na, monosodium glutamate or MSG, sodium citrate, baking soda, baking powder, and sodium bicarbonate. They're all forms of--you guessed it!--sodium.

9. Say no to sports drinks. Research does indicate that endurance athletes need higher levels of sodium and far more to drink than everyday folk. Drinks like gatorade deliver on both--they are rich in salt, which not only provides needed sodium but also stokes continued thirst. For the rest of us, the extra salt provides no benefit at all. Even if you exercise regularly, unless you are testing your body's physical limits for extended periods, water should do fine to quench your thirst.

10. Replace salt in the saltshaker with a salt-free mixture. This way you can still use the shaker, but hold off on the salt, says Jennifer Leslie, R.D., a clinical dietitian at the Clarian Heart Failure Clinic in Indianapolis. Mix garlic powder, black pepper, onion powder, and oregano together. Grind the mix fine enough for it to come out the shaker's holes, or buy a Parmesan cheese shaker from a kitchen supply store. Another fun mixture is garlic, onion and chili powder, cumin, dried oregano, and a touch of red pepper flakes.

From Reader's Digest Stealth Health. Buy this and other books at the Reader's Digest Store.