Strategies for cutting back on salt
The Institute of Medicine's newly released report, Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, focuses on big-picture strategies for reining in America's salt habit. Although it has been somewhat controversial in the past, there now is general agreement among the experts that many people in the United States and other developed nations have an unhealthy amount of salt in the diet. There are many things that individuals, chefs, and organizations can do right now to reduce sodium. Consumers can also use these tips when they cook at home, shop in the supermarket, or choose a meal at their favorite restaurant.
Many of these guidelines offer a "stealth health" approach to sodium reduction — ways that sodium can be reduced with no change or minimal change to food experiences or choices. The good news is that most of these guidelines support broader diet recommendations for good health in addition to reducing sodium intake.
The Big Picture: Total Diet Focus
1. Downsize your portions: You'll scale back the sodium (and the calories).
A good rule of thumb is that the more calories a meal has, the more sodium it has. Share a dish when dining out. You can cut your salt — and trim your waist.
2. Produce first: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
Our bodies need more potassium than sodium. But most Americans' diets are just the opposite, which can contribute to high blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium, and many fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium. Filling your plate with them will boost your potassium and shift the sodium-potassium balance in your favor.
3. Get fresh: Choose unprocessed and minimally processed foods.
Processed foods and prepared foods are the greatest sources of sodium in the American diet (75 percent by some estimates). By choosing fresh foods, you can decide how much or how little salt to add.
4. Embrace healthy fats and oils: A savory strategy to lower sodium levels.
Many well-meaning product developers cut both the good and bad fats out of formulations, and in order to maintain consumer acceptance of their products, they were forced to increase levels of sugar and sodium. By skipping most fat-free salad dressings and other similar products, you'll be doing your blood pressure a favor.
Salt, Perception, and Psychology
5. Stealth health: The most delicious approach to sodium reduction.
For many foods and preparations, the average person can't detect moderate to substantial differences in sodium levels, including reductions of up to as much as 25 percent.
6. Retrain your taste buds: You can learn to savor foods with less salt.
Make the changes gradually and consistently over a period of time, rather than trying to cut back by a large amount all at once.
Buyer Beware: Know Your Salt Facts, Ask Questions
7. Target high-volume sodium sources: Prioritize your efforts.
Know which ingredients and individual foods are high in sodium, and eat them sparingly. Understand which categories of foods contribute the most sodium to our diets through repeated daily and weekly consumption. Salt is ubiquitous in the American diet, but these top food sources of sodium in the U.S. diet are a good place to cut down:
- Meat pizza
- White bread
- Processed cheese
- Hot dogs
- Spaghetti with sauce
8. Scan the label: Look for foods with less than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Canned, boxed, frozen, and prepared foods can be high in sodium. Check the label for sodium amounts and choose foods that have less than 300 milligrams per serving. But pay attention to serving sizes, as they are often unrealistically small. A good rule of thumb for label reading is to look for no more than one milligram of sodium per one calorie of food.
Flavor Strategies and Culinary Insights
9. Know your seasons, and, even better, your local farmer.
Shop for raw ingredients with maximum natural flavor, thereby avoiding the need to add as much (if any) sodium. Seek out peak-of-season produce from farmers' markets and your local supermarket.
10. Spice it up: Simple flavor additions can enhance food with less salt.
One of the easiest ways to reduce the need for added salt is through the use of ingredients such as spices, dried and fresh herbs, roots (such as garlic and ginger), citrus, vinegars, and wine.
11. Go nuts for healthy fats in the kitchen.
Fat is a great carrier and enhancer of flavor. Using the right healthy fats — from roasted nuts and avocados to olive, canola, soybean, and other oils — can help make up for any flavor loss from using less salt.
12. Sear, sauté, and roast: The right cooking method can help you spare the salt.
Take the time to learn some simple cooking techniques that can make your cooking less reliant on sodium. Searing and sautéing foods in a pan builds flavor. Roasting brings out the natural sweetness of many vegetables and the savoriness of fish and chicken. Steaming and microwaving tend to dilute flavors; perk up steamed dishes with a finishing drizzle of flavorful oil and a squeeze of citrus.
August 2010 update
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