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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.


soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Isabelle

    Salt IS everywhere. 1 tbsp. of soy sauce contains 900mg of sodium, diet sodas-35-45mg./serving, canned foods, processed foods, the list is endless. I've been reading labels for many years, in an effort to establish calorie, salt, fat, and over-all nutritional content, even when labels were scarce. While there are many salt-free options available on the spice isle in your local grocery store, I've found fresh lemon juice and fresh herbs do a more credible job. Some have suggested fresh garlic, if you can handle it's very pungent aroma (for days). Best advice, keep it fresh, make it yourself.

    May 16, 2009 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. karen pollok

    Regarding your article on sodium, May 14, 2009.

    After taking a course in nutrition and exercise at The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA., I found you do not need to get rid of all your canned vegatables.

    When using canned foods, pour them into a colendar, rinse with water, getting rid of most of the sodium. Use them in soups, & stews cooking them in chicken or beef broth, low sodium, of course.

    May 17, 2009 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Geoff

    I have only recently become aware of the high sodium content of the frozen meals I eat almost daily for lunch. The average entree in my freezer contains about half of the RDA for sodium. This might explain my feeling of dehydration soon after I eat my lunch. Sodium content is something I will definitely pay more attention to. I suppose I should eat more carrots and fewer frozen things.

    May 21, 2009 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Cag

    Re; rinsing canned foods in a collander. What about the salt that has already been absorbed by the canned vegetable? That will not rinse off. It has already disolved and been absorbed.

    May 22, 2009 at 08:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Emily

    Dr. Gupta's advice is excellence, but a side note in this case: Your wife is likely adding salt to pasta water to make it cook faster, not for flavoring. Having salt in the water will prevent the water from boiling until it's at a higher temperature than 100F. Adding the pasta when the water is at a higher temp will result in faster cooking.

    May 22, 2009 at 09:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Michele

    My husband just past away on Mon 5/25/09 at the age of 37. He had a massive stroke due to untreated high blood pressure. He had just recently been complaining of dizziness and we discussed the possibility of high blood pressure but life got in the way of attending to this leathal problem. I would like to ask if you could do a piece about the affects of high blood pressure as maybe it could help someone avoid the tradgedy my family is facing today.

    May 28, 2009 at 09:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. sugandha

    We do not use canned foods, but prepare everything from raw products. For example, instead of using canned chick peas, I soak them overnight, and then cook them in a slow cooker without salt. Then add salt to the amount that you can barely taste it. This is because raw foods already have salts such as potassium, and magnesium and sodium in them. Eating healthy definitely needs minute adjustments, but is really is easily accomplishable.

    May 28, 2009 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Jill

    I have made meal preparation fast and easy with fresh ingredients. It;s so quick to saute some fresh spinach in olive oil with fresh garlic, steam broccoli in a microwave or slice up fresh tomatoes and avocadoes. Sub oil and vinegar for prepared salad dressing. Add a micro baked potato and some quickly stovetop cooked boneless breast, chopped sirloin or salmon fillet, and dinner is on the table in 15 minutes. It's as effortless as a prepared entree and almost as quick....with a fraction of the added sodium. Additional benefit is that it's colorful and delicious.

    June 4, 2009 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Denise Harper

    Dear Mr Gupta
    My name is Denise Harper I am 53 year old My question to you is
    is good to take baby aspirin or just plain aspirin. I am trying to take good care of myself. thank you for demonstration about the type of
    medication that suppose to used in hospital setting concerning
    micheal jackson.

    Thank You
    Denise Harper

    August 3, 2009 at 13:13 | Report abuse | Reply

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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.