You've Cut the Sugar. Now, About the Salt
Jan 27, 2014 - 12:01:00 AM

( - When it comes to identifying a dietary culprit, some people look no further than sugar. And it's true: added sugars are one of the leading sources of empty calories in our food and drink, contributing to such dangerous outcomes as obesity and diabetes. But our constant focus on sugar may be distracting us from another potential threat: namely, salt.

Sodium is essential to our bodies. It helps muscles and nerves function properly and it regulates our water volume. It is a fundamental component of any healthy diet. But it becomes a problem when we start ingesting far more than we need. Excess salt is associated most prominently with high blood pressure, which puts persistent strain on the heart and can lead to stroke, aneurysms and heart disease if left untreated.

So how do we prevent overconsumption? The first step is recognizing where our excess salt is coming from. According to the CDC, a whopping 77% of sodium eaten in the U.S. comes from processed and restaurant foods, while only 11% comes from cooking with salt and applying it to our meals. So while we may think we're taking charge by forgoing the table shaker, in reality we're doing little to stem the tide of high sodium intake.

The real trick to eating well is eating at home. Restaurants are nice indulgence, but even four-star establishments shouldn't be considered vanguards of nutrition. Less surprisingly, the convenience of packaged and processed foods mask their health deficits. And though most consumers can spot spot red flags like calories or trans fats, we often overlook sodium content.

As for the foods themselves, the CDC has identified the 10 items that account for 44% of our total sodium intake: breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soups, sandwiches, cheeses, pasta dishes, meat dishes, and snacks. Perhaps it's no coincidence that these foods number among our perennial favorites; however, they should only be enjoyed in moderation. To that end, specific nutrition regimens can offer helpful guidelines to eating well while reducing sodium intake. The DASH diet, for instance-recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the best overall diet for 2014-was specifically designed to prevent and combat hypertension. Its effectiveness in controlling weight and promoting a healthy balance of foods is an ancillary benefit.

So the next time you peruse the nutrition facts of a new grocery purchase, consider the sodium as well as the usual suspects-and try to limit each. One general tip when choosing packaged foods is to look for items with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories. Another is to cook more at home: you'll be rewarded with both flavor and health. And that's a recipe we can all enjoy.


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