“Everything in moderation” is a familiar phrase to most of us. “Just have a little,” friends say. “One bite won’t kill you,” they assure you. Or the old favorite… “My Uncle Charlie (or Aunt Sue) lived to 170 years old and ate bacon and cheese every day” -- apparently also while smoking, drinking, and wrestling bears.
What is the truth about salt, and what can we do to be healthier while still enjoying our food? In short, sodium is necessary for health and life. However, not in the way that most of us think. Except in extreme or unusual situations, all of the sodium that our body needs can be found in whole plant foods without adding a single grain of salt.
We have become used to the taste of added salt in almost every processed food and from added salt in home and restaurant cooking. It seems to give food a really delightful flavor – and it does. However, here is a secret: We often think we are enjoying the flavor of a food item when what we are really enjoying is the salt. Think about the last time you had pizza, a piece of chicken, or a great vegan chili. Now just imagine those dishes without any salty seasonings. They would not taste the same. Our taste buds have been desensitized to the flavor of actual foods, and our health is suffering because of it.
Excess sodium has been implicated in the development of many health problems: High blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease to name a few. So…what to do? How do we enjoy our food without causing more problems for our health and longevity? First, we have to start with the source. We must eliminate or at least reduce salt in our diets. We have to stop salting our lives away. The only way to appreciate the inherent deliciousness and flavor in our daily diet is to take a break from the salt shaker. We have to reacquaint ourselves with the tastes of foods as they are found in nature.
There are two main ways to accomplish this goal:
The “Step by Step” Method
The gradual “step by step” method can be the more difficult option, because keeping added salt in the diet just seems to create a desire for more. However, if that is the way you want to go, there are a couple ways to make it easier:
1. Do not add salt while in the process of cooking. Leave the salt shaker on the table, and only add slight amounts after you sit down to eat.
2. When purchasing packaged foods, choose items that have less than 1 mg of sodium per calorie. Natural foods have approximately 0.5 mg of sodium per calorie. If one serving of an item provides 100 calories, a low sodium food would have 100 mg of sodium or less per serving. For example, a processed food with 300 mg of sodium would be considered to be a high sodium food. Then, start to incorporate more natural foods and fewer and fewer processed package items until your goal of being very low sodium or salt free is achieved.
The “I Quit” Method
I like the “I quit” method. It is more challenging in the beginning, but once you leave the salt on the table for good, you are able to appreciate the wonderful flavors of foods and understand that salt only masks them. When you are able to leave the salt aside, you can become free from that craving.
To replace salt, use lots of fresh herbs, salt-free seasonings, and lemon (lemon is a healthy way to bring out the flavor in foods). While at first the taste of one’s usual favorites may seem somewhat lackluster, it only takes about 3 weeks to start really enjoying the salt-free flavor of natural foods. When you retrain your taste buds to appreciate whole foods in their natural state, your old “favorites” may seem too salty and will lose their appeal. This is great news for your taste buds and your health.
Why not consider giving salt the old heave-ho for the sake of your taste buds and your health? There are many delicious ways to naturally flavor food without salt that you and your family can really learn to enjoy.
Try some fresh herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, sage, or salt-free dried seasonings like Mrs. Dash and Table Tasty. Or, experiment with some wonderful lesser used spices such as sumac, smoked paprika, garam masala, saffron, turmeric, or cumin.
What do you have to lose anyway? How about your medications, high blood pressure, water retention, and your cravings? Sounds like a pretty great deal, I think! Maybe you will become the next Uncle Charlie or Aunt Sue with a long-lived story of your own.
Havas S, Dickinson B. Wilson M. “The Urgent Need to Reduce Sodium Consumption.” JAMA 2007; 298(12):1439-1441
Dickenson BD, Havas S. “Reducing the population burden of cardiovascular disease by reducing sodium intake: a report of the Council on Science and Public Health.” Arch Intern Med 2007;167(14):1460-1468
Fuhrman, Joel (2011) Eat to Live. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company
Harvard T.H. Chan of Public Health Nutrition Source: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/salt-and-sodium/