Consuming some salt (sodium) is important for good health. It helps maintain the correct volume of blood and fluids that circulate in our bodies. However, most Americans take in too much salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports that Americans consume more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, on average. Eating too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, stroke, and other serious health problems. The United States Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day; this is about a teaspoon. Ask your healthcare provider if you should be consuming even less sodium. People with or at high risk for certain conditions, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, are typically advised to consume even less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. But even staying under that limit can be difficult to manage when salt is used to preserve and flavor much of our food.
However, eating a heart-healthy, low-salt diet that still tastes delicious is not hard if you have a few kitchen tricks up your sleeve. Try these three easy ideas for enhancing your favorite dishes without added sodium.
Lemon, lime, grapefruit, and orange juice are all great options for using in marinades and salad dressings as a replacement for oil. An inexpensive hand juicer makes it easy to extract juice any time you want it and can be found at almost any store that carries kitchenware for about $5. But, simply squeezing juice into a bowl does the job, too.
In addition to juice, citrus zest perks up recipes with a fresh, vibrant taste. A hand grater works well for this purpose. Make an easy Asian-inspired marinade by adding orange zest to a mixture of low-sodium soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. Give your pancakes a boost without lots of syrup and butter by grating lemon zest in the batter.
Missy Pinard, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Fairview Senior Living suggests adding a splash of heart-smart vinegar to add flavor to foods without sodium, fat, or calories: “Vinegar tends to brighten the flavors of a dish, and bring sweetness and a bit of tartness.” Try adding a splash of balsamic vinegar to chicken or vegetables, such as mushrooms or Brussels sprouts at the end of cooking. Fruity vinegars such as raspberry balsamic, red wine vinegar, or white wine vinegar make great salad dressings, too. Strawberries and blueberries will come alive with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a bit of chopped mint for a unique dessert that’s delicious plain or on some low-fat frozen yogurt.
Using herbs is also a great way to reduce added salt in recipes without sacrificing flavor. Basil and oregano complement tomatoes; dill does the same for fish. Try rosemary with poultry or pork; add cilantro to salsas or beans; and mint works well in beverages or desserts. Spice up meat, fish, or vegetables with a rub by simply putting your favorite herbs in a food processor with a drizzle of olive oil or fresh citrus juice and pulse until a paste is formed. Rub it onto the meat, and let it sit for a bit before cooking to allow the herbs to infuse your food.
Don’t resign yourself to a life of bland foods just because you want to eat healthy and nutritiously. With a few simple tricks you can savor the flavor of your heart-smart, low-sodium diet. Dietitian Pinard also suggests trying these tips for curbing your sodium intake:
- Avoid processed and prepackaged food whenever possible. Cooking at home is always better because you can control the amount of sodium. When you eat out, you never really know how much salt was added in processing and flavoring. In order to eliminate salty foods, aim to base your meals on fresh and whole foods that you cook yourself and not on processed, warm-and-serve products.
- Be fast food savvy. If you want a low sodium diet, your best option is to dodge the drive thru. If you must eat fast food occasionally, be knowledgeable about which items are lower in sodium by doing some research; most fast-food places now have nutrition facts available online. Also, aim for grilled instead of fried, and fruit instead of fries. Avoid sauces, condiments, and gravies which are commonly loaded with sodium. Consider, for example, that one popular fast-food Mexican restaurant serves a loaded burrito that has 2,650 milligrams of sodium, not to mention 1,185 calories. At that same restaurant you could choose a burrito bowl instead. Skip the tortilla and dish up fillings like chicken, brown rice, veggies, and green tomatillo salsa for a healthy choice that totals 920 milligrams of sodium and 385 calories.
- Avoid adding extra salt while cooking. Look for other ways to flavor food, such as fresh and dried herbs, a splash of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice and/or pepper. Low-sodium broths, salt-free seasonings, and cooking wine can also be good flavor enhancers. When eating canned items, choose the low-sodium option and be sure to rinse canned items like beans, tuna, or veggies. By rinsing you can reduce the sodium by up to 40 percent, even if they are already low-sodium products.
- Start with small changes. Reducing salt to the American Heart Association’s recommended 1,500 milligrams or less per day — that’s between 1/2 and 3/4 of a teaspoon — can be challenging. You may need to slowly reduce salt, and over time you should find it easier to enjoy foods with a less salty taste than you did in the past.
- Read food labels carefully.
- Be aware of which foods you commonly eat that are high in sodium. People are often surprised to know that ketchup, cereals, and even healthy choice-type soups are high in sodium.
- You can find the amount of sodium in your food by looking at the Nutrition Facts label. The amount of sodium per serving is listed in milligrams (or mg). Check the ingredient list for words like “sodium,” “salt” and “soda.” The total sodium shown on the Nutrition Facts label includes the sodium from salt, plus the sodium from any other sodium-containing ingredient in the product. Remember to take note of the serving size on the Nutrition Facts label. If your portion size equals two servings of a product, you’re actually eating double the sodium listed.
- To season your food without salt, try this seasoning mixture: 2 teaspoons of garlic powder, 1 teaspoon of basil, 1 teaspoon of anise seed, 1 teaspoon of oregano, and 1 teaspoon of dry lemon rind or dry lemon juice. Mix well, store in a glass container, label and add a few grains of rice to prevent caking.
The bottom line is that sometimes small adjustments can bring big results when it comes to your overall health. Taking steps to reduce sodium in your diet by cooking at home, avoiding processed foods, and reading food labels can help a lot. Try adding flavor to food with citrus, herbs, and vinegar for inexpensive and easy ways to boost flavor without adding more salt.