Heart Health

Beyond the Salt Shaker: Reducing Sodium Intake

During the nearly seven years I worked on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Sodium Reduction Initiative, I heard time and time again: “I never add salt to my food, so I don’t have to worry about sodium intake.” Interestingly, people would tell me this even after mentioning they knew most of their sodium was coming from packaged and restaurant foods and not the salt shaker.

I could never understand this disconnect between understanding and action, until one day someone said that people keep using the salt shaker to try to reduce sodium intake because they feel that’s what they can control. Unlike packaged foods, where the salt already has been added and can’t be removed, they have a choice about whether to use the salt shaker.

This comment really helped me understand the key message that consumers do have control over how much sodium is in the food they buy, and there are myriad lower-sodium options to choose from within most food categories.

Dietitians can help clients lower sodium intake by providing the following practical tips:

  • Compare the % DV to better choose lower-sodium options. The FDA says that 5% or less is low, while 20% or more is high. However, it’s important to remind clients that this is based on the labeled serving, not the package as a whole.
  • Encourage clients to read and compare Nutrition Facts panels. Some people think cooking from scratch involves assembling packaged foods into a meal. But different brands of the same foods can vary widely in sodium content, so teach clients to read product labels.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables from any source (fresh, frozen, or canned). If buying canned vegetables, choose no-salt-added or low- or reduced-sodium varieties.
  • Choose fresh poultry, fish, pork, and lean beef instead of cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise processed meats.
  • If clients use instant, preseasoned products, such as flavored rice, suggest they replace one-half the portion with plain rice. Doing so will help decrease extra sodium while reducing exposure to salt over time. To save time, suggest clients cook grains ahead of time and place them in smaller-portioned containers so they’re ready to throw into dishes when needed.
  • Recommend clients experiment with spices to flavor food with less salt. They can flavor plain versions of packaged ingredients and phase out higher-sodium packaged foods over time. For example, they can add herbs, spices, and salt to canned, no-salt-added tomatoes to create a dish with far less sodium than jarred tomato-based sauces.
  • Ask for no added salt when dining out.

Nearly 80% of the sodium Americans eat is from frequently consumed packaged and restaurant foods, such as breads and rolls, fresh and processed poultry, and sandwiches and cheese. Per the CDC, more than 90% of Americans aged 2 and older eat more sodium than is recommended for a healthful diet, which can increase the risk of high blood pressure. The CDC estimates that about one in six kids aged 8 to 17 has elevated blood pressure, so reducing sodium intake can reduce the risk of high blood pressure in children, too.

In addition, the CDC offers the printable tips sheet “Reducing Sodium in Your Diet to Help Control Your Blood Pressure,” to share with clients. It’s important to remind clients that, just like anything else, when it comes to sodium reduction, gradual changes really can make a difference.

— Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, is a freelance writer and owner of Balanced Pantry, a consulting business helping companies develop and modify food labels, conduct recipe analysis, and create nutrition communications materials. Learn more at www.balancedpantry.com, Twitter @balancedpantry, and Facebook.com/BalancedPantry1.

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