Thursday, February 3, 2011

Step Away from the Salt

Today, I write to you from of frigid temps; rolling blackouts; home-bound, stir-crazy kids; and rapidly dwindling groceries (at least in my house).

But amidst this chaos, I soldier on.  After all, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were just released this week by the USDA.

You may be thinking, "Huh?  Dietary what? Do I care about this?"

First, a primer: the Dietary Guidelines (DGAs) are released every five years with scientifically-based recommendations for healthy eating.  For the American consumer, they are like a blueprint on how to use food to improve your health - something for you to follow regarding what to eat, how much to eat and how often to eat it.  The DGAs also are used when planning federal nutrition programs like the School Lunch Program, and are a major influence on how foods are made - affecting what you'll see on  grocery store shelves of the future.

And in a country where 68% of the population is overweight or obese, I'd say we definitely need help - any help - to get healthier. 

At first glance, the 2010 DGAs are really not much different than the 2005 version: increase fruit and vegetable intake, include whole grains, decrease "bad" fats and replace them with the "good" and limit desserts.

But there is one big change this year.  Sodium.  Also known as salt.  It's become an ingredient in everything from breads to drinks to condiments to fast food.  And we are eating way too much - with deadly consequences in the forms of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. 

The DGAs recommend cutting way back on our salt intake - to the tune of 1 tsp (2300mg) daily for healthy Americans and only about 2/3 tsp (1500mg) daily for Americans who fit into one of these categories: 51 or older, African American, and those with already diagnosed hypertension, diabetes or kidney problems.

It's a rather drastic statement.  After all, Americans currently eat around 3,400mg per day - double the amount the DGAs recommend.  But, it's doable.

The key to cutting back for all of us?  Reducing the amount of packaged, processed and prepared foods we eat every day - about 75% of the salt we eat comes from these sources.

A good rule of thumb: Check the nutrition facts label of your packaged and prepared foods (which includes everything from frozen dinners to condiments to spaghetti sauce to crackers) - if the DV% for sodium is more than 20%, ditch it and choose something else (preferably with 15% or less DV per serving). 

Other tips:

* When you eat out, ask for items to be prepared without salt (and don't use the table salt)
* Check out your favorite restaurant's nutrition menu online prior to going out so you can choose the lowest salt options
* If you cook at home, use salt-free seasonings, fresh herbs, and citrus zests instead of salt
* When purchasing fresh or frozen chicken, make sure it isn't "enhanced" with salt (one 4-ounce chicken breast should have around 45mg of natural sodium; "enhanced" can have up to 440mg; check the label)
* Rinse canned beans and other veggies when possible to drain off excess salt
* If you love nuts and seeds, choose roasted but unsalted versions

A side benefit to cutting salt by making better packaged (and non-packaged) food choices?  You'll end up eating less calories, fat and sugar, as well, since these all tend to lurk together in unhealthy foods.

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