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The truth about salt

Do you automatically reach for the salt shaker and douse your food to add more flavor and zing? Do you choose packaged foods for convenience? After reading this, you may think twice.

Sodium is an essential nutrient for our bodies. It helps control heart rate, aids in the transmission of signals in the brain, and plays a critical role in helping the digestive system absorb nutrients. But too much salt can be a bad thing. Sodium overload may contribute to high blood pressure, dehydration, water retention, and even lead to permanent damage to the walls of your blood vessels and the lining of your stomach.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average person should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (a little more than 1 teaspoon), but the average person in the U.S. is consuming way more than that — 3,500 milligrams per day, which amounts to nearly 2 teaspoons. A majority of this salt intake is not coming from salt that we are sprinkling onto our food. It is coming from the processed foods we eat.

The saltiest foods in America

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the top 10 saltiest foods are: 

10. Snacks like potato chips, popcorn, and pretzels

9.   Meatloaf and other "meat-mixed" dishes

8.   Pasta dishes

7.   Cheese

6.   Cheeseburgers and sandwiches

5.   Soups

4.   Chicken (both fresh and processed)

3.   Pizza

2.   Cured meats like cold cuts

1.   Bread and rolls

Nancy Waldeck, chef at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, stresses that we have to be label detectives to cut down on salt intake because it is in so many of our favorite packaged foods.

"Ketchup, salad dressings, soups, tomato products and canned beans are all very high in sodium. While beans are a great source of protein, you can choose low-sodium versions or you can actually get rid of up to 40 percent of the salt if you rinse the beans before eating or cooking with them."

Healthy alternatives to salt

Knowing that we are probably getting enough sodium from packaged foods, Waldeck recommends replacing the salt shaker with other healthier alternatives. She suggests these three substitutes to add a pop of flavor to food:

1) Lemon zest and lemon juice – The citrus fruit contains acid that brings out the natural flavor in foods, just like salt does.

2) Herbs and spices – These calorie-free options add natural flavor to spice up bland foods.

3) Hot sauce or chili peppers – These add a pop of flavor to bland foods as well. Hot sauces may contain high sodium levels, so keep your portions small.

Waldeck is a big advocate for learning to cook and using fresh vegetables and fruits as the basis for all meals.

"The more you cook at home, the more you can customize food to your own palate and know what is in the foods you eat. In general, eating a diet high in fruits and veggies will ensure you are eating low-sodium foods."

For more ways to make your everyday life healthier, visit Living Better Health & Wellness

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