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May 14th, 2009
10:50 AM ET

How can we avoid salt in our diet?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers’ questions. Here’s a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Arthur
Birmingham, Alabama

"I saw your report earlier in the week the about high salt content in restaurant foods. I end up consuming salty foods at home too! My wife adds it to everything – even to the water she boils our pasta in. What are some alternatives I can suggest?"

Answer

Arthur, thanks for writing in!  Sodium content is often not something people look for on labels, or consciously think about when preparing their meals. Even many low-fat, low-calorie items have very high levels of sodium. Then, of course, the salt shaker sitting on most kitchen tables doesn’t help the matter. You see we’re all creatures of habit. If a person grows up always adding salt and pepper to each meal, it becomes second nature. Before even tasting a meal, many people add salt to without thinking twice.

Our bodies do need some sodium. It helps regulate your body’s fluid, aids in muscle function. But too much sodium can cause a siren to go off internally. When excess salt flows through your bloodstream, your kidneys get defensive. They release a hormone that triggers blood vessels to contract, which causes your blood pressure to rise. From there it’s a ripple effect on your health. High blood pressure can cause a heart attack or stroke among other conditions. Something as seemingly small as reducing sodium levels in your diet could save your life. In fact, the American Medical Association estimates that 150,000 lives could be saved in the United States annually if people cut their salt intake in half.

There are ways to cut back when cooking at home without losing flavor. Start by getting the salt shaker off the dinner table. As I mentioned earlier, people often add it to meals just because it's there, not because the food needs it. Keep the shaker in the cabinet, and odds are your whole family will inadvertently use it less.

Also limit your intake of processed foods and canned vegetables. An estimated 77 percent of a person’s daily sodium intake comes from these items. One serving of canned food may have up to 1,000 milligrams of sodium! Fresh fruits and vegetables have a muchlower count by nature. Find out where the local farmer’s market is in your area and bring the family to pick out favorite fresh items each week. You’ll save money too. Local markets often have lower prices.

Have you been down the herb and spice isle at the grocery store lately? There are hundred of options to add flavor to meals with little to no sodium count. You and your wife will have fun experimenting with different spices to your favorite recipes – sans salt!

Arthur, the best advice is being mindful of  "hidden" sources of sodium. The American Heart Association recommends 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day for the average person. Sounds like a lot but it adds up quickly. A 12-oz glass of tomato juice has 1,000 mg of salt. One tablespoon of relish has about 250 mg. One hot dog has up to 800 mg. Many salad dressings – including fat free – have 500 mg of sodium in just two tablespoons.

Bottom line, salt is everywhere. Read the labels, look for low-sodium products and eat fresh food when possible.


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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