Bitter- Sweet: Part 2

Yup, that’s right. Same warning, but this time the spotlight will be on salt. Particularly that chemical which forms salt: Sodium. You have probably seen this word used in countless ways on countless products on the grocery store shelves: “Reduced Sodium”, “Low Sodium”, “50% less Sodium”, etc, etc. So what does it mean? Why is it so dangerous? Why do we even need it? In answering these questions for my mom (as many of you might remember, she was my primary motivation in exploring the solutions to these diet dilemmas) I have found a few answers that might be helpful to you.

Now if you read Part 1, you might find it hard to believe that my mother’s love for sweet foods could be rivalled by anything else, but she craves salty foods just as strongly (I call it an addiction, but don’t tell her I said that 😉 ) In particular, the fried (yes, again with dipping things in boiling oil) salty Indian snacks, or the mixed peas/mixed nuts, or even the everyday food such as curries and lentils that she feels the need to add EXTRA salt to. Her number one complaint for food that my brother and I make is that it doesn’t have enough salt, and that usually just makes us shake our heads as she sprinkles it on. The problem with adding extra salt to meals, or eating foods like the salty snacks, nuts or peas that you find either in bulk or in bags at your local food store is that there’s never an accurate measure of how much extra salt you are taking in. So when my mom says, “I only sprinkle a little salt once or twice a day- I don’t eat too much!” its hard to help her conceptualize the true quantity of sodium she’s taking in and then compare that to what’s healthy.

So, I begin with the base and the basics. What’s the measurable quantity of salt that she or I are taking in from the routine, everyday foods, and what’s the recommended amount? The Canada Food Guide (which is what Canadian registered nurses are encouraged to use as a basic guide to nutrition counselling with patients/clients, and can be viewed at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php ) recommends the average intake of sodium should be 1500 mg per day to maintain adequate health, and should not exceed 2300 mg in a day. The reason we need sodium is that it’s an essential element which helps maintain the water and fluid balance in our bodies, which in turn helps keep our blood pressure at a healthy level. Sodium also helps maintain proper muscle and nerve function. Iodized salt (which is what the typical table salt usually is) also benefits us in that iodine is an important element for maintaining healthy thyroid function. However, when sodium levels become too high our blood pressure increases; high blood pressure or hypertension can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney failure. Not to mention that extra sodium in our bodies causes our bodies to retain water which leads to edema (swelling) and excess pressure on our nerves and muscles, and also bloating which I don’t believe any woman is a fan of!

by TheGiantVermin via Flickr

Here’s how you get a good estimate of how much sodium you’re taking in on an average day, before sprinkling that ‘extra little bit of salt’ on top. Read the nutrition labels on the foods you eat for a day, and just keep a running tab either on your phone or on a piece of paper throughout the day. There are also many data charts available online to help you figure out sodium levels in foods that aren’t labelled like fruits or vegetables. For example, usually for breakfast I have 2 slices of ‘Mack’s Flax’ bread (150 mg of sodium per slice), an egg (65 mg of sodium) and half an avocado (3 mg of sodium), with a glass of milk (120 mg per 250 mL, or a cup). Already for breakfast, for a meal that’s organic, and fairly natural, I am at 488 mg of sodium for the day. Try to keep a food journal and then you can see what things you can substitute to reduce the level of sodium in your diet, or if you have a particularly salty/high sodium meal (which we are all prone to do, let’s be real!) try to adjust your next meal so that your sodium levels are not making your blood pressure go up and down, even for a day. For instance, instead of milk for breakfast, maybe a cup of hot tea would be better for me. Or instead of the egg, I could opt for just an egg white. Watch for sodium in foods that you wouldn’t even have thought, or that may surprise you: for instance a slice of processed cheese has almost double the sodium content of a slice of bacon (and that’s the fat free cheese!!). Fast food is one of the biggest culprits of increasing the average sodium intake of North Americans: just take a gander onto one of the websites of your favourite fast food chain and browse their nutrition information on burgers, fries, pop, etc. You will be amazed at how just one meal at a fast food restaurant can usually take you above and beyond your DAILY recommended sodium intake.

As for the salt that my mom sprinkles onto her curries, etc, a quarter teaspoon of salt has about 540 mg of sodium in it. I measured out a quarter teaspoon with my mom, and showed her that it was about the same as how much she would shake on to her plate with our salt shaker. That was surprising for her, because she had no idea that with just a few shakes were giving her 1/3 of her daily sodium. So here are some recommendations for you based on what has been working for my mom and me:
- Use a salt shaker with smaller holes. This way, you don’t get a free flow of salt every time you shake
- READ THE NUTRITION LABELS- as with sugar/carbohydrate intake, the best way to start to decrease your sodium intake if it’s high is to first monitor it. Get your baseline intake by keeping that sodium journal for a day, and then maybe you can start to make substitutions when you grocery shop or eat out
- Try salt alternatives: sea salt has the exact same chemical composition as table salt, therefore the same amount of sodium. The difference is that sea salt has a different and usually stronger flavour, so you usually end up using less to achieve the same effect. Also, lemon and lime are great substitutes for salt (half a lemon has about 10 mg of sodium) in cooking and also in dips. Using other spices can also enhance the flavour of a meal without spiking the sodium level like salt can
- EAT AS NATURALLY AS POSSIBLE (yeah, you probably knew this was coming!) Anything processed compared to a more unprocessed or natural equivalent is going to have much higher sodium contents (take for example processed vs unprocessed cheese). And fruits, vegetables, whole grains and meats that haven’t been processed or prepared outside your home are going to have much lower levels of natural sodium. If you can cook something yourself at home from scratch, I encourage you to do it because it puts you in the driver’s seat for how much salt and sugar you put on your table
- Monitor your blood pressure regularly. I know it can be hard to get a family doctor who will check your blood pressure for you regularly, but if you can stop by the pharmacy at your local grocery store when you’re there once a week, they usually all have blood pressure machines set up nowadays and those are a great opportunity for you to easily measure and record your blood pressure. Usually taking 3 blood pressure values over 10 minutes is the most accurate measure, because the first value can usually be a little high because of anxiety or the fact that you’ve been walking around the store. A normal value is 130/80, but if you find your values are consistently above 140/90 then it might be time to start reducing your sodium intake and maybe even going to see your doctor for further advice.

In conclusion, it’s a slow process to change a person’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviours surrounding foods or flavours to which they hold such a strong connection (and this holds true for both my mom and me!). But I believe in baby steps, and I am beginning with awareness and a desire to change, and I encourage you to do the same.