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Why you should cut back on salt

It’s in your soup, ketchup, lunch meat and even your cereal. Salt may make your meal taste good, but too much of it can lead to inflammation from fluid retention, overworked organs and serious diseases. While you can’t avoid it completely, you can educate yourself about what is in your food and make smarter choices to control your sodium intake, says Lena Beal, M.S., RDN, LD, a therapeutic dietitian at Piedmont Heart.  

How salt affects the body

So what exactly makes excess sodium so dangerous?

“A high salt diet leads to hypertension [high blood pressure], which can cause heart disease and stroke,” says Beal.

Decreasing sodium intake reduces your risk of these serious conditions.

“Salt likes water and the more salt you have in your system, the more water you’ll have,” she explains. “This can lead to fatigue, as well as dangerous swelling and excess fluids around major organs. Inflammation causes organs, like your heart, to work harder. It’s easy to see swollen hands and feet, but it’s harder to see inflammation on the inside.”

Which foods are the biggest culprits?

Beal says you should watch out for foods that are:

  • Canned
  • Processed
  • Cured
  • Packed in brine

Common high-sodium culprits include:

  • Lunch meat and bacon
  • Cereal
  • Pickles and sauerkraut
  • Asian food
  • Condiments (such as soy sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce and teriyaki sauce)
  • Processed frozen food like waffles and pizza

Portion size is another key to controlling sodium intake. Seemingly harmless food – like bread – may not be high in sodium per serving, but if you eat bread multiple times a day, you could be taking in more sodium than you realize.

Understanding nutrition labels

So how do you limit sodium if it’s in almost everything you eat? It’s important to understand the nutrition labeling system:

  • Sodium-free = less than 5 mg of salt per serving
  • Very low sodium = less than 35 mg per serving
  • Low sodium = less than 140 mg
  • Reduced sodium = 25 percent less sodium than in the regular version of the product

The average American consumes 3,436 mg a day – significantly more than the recommended 2,300 mg. Individuals with the following risk factors should limit their daily intake to 1,500 mg.

  • Age 51 or older
  • African American
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • High blood pressure

But, “If something is low in salt, it could be high in something else, like fat and calories. Read the nutritional labels on food you consume,” warns Beal.

“Fruits and vegetables—fresh or frozen—are naturally low in sodium,” she says. “These are good to fill up on. In fact, it’s recommended that half our plates be filled with vegetables to make sure we eat the daily recommended amount.”

To add a bright, salt-like flavor to food, try a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice instead of salt. Herbs and spices are another great way to add sodium-free flavor.

For more nutrition tips, visit Living Better Health & Wellness

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