Dietary Confessions, I was a Salt Addict


Have you seen that salt or sodium intake has been in the news lately? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 were recently released and one of the key recommendations is that Americans need to significantly reduce their sodium, or salt, intake. The reason being is that in pproximately half of Americans, a high sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. On average, we eat far too much sodium than we really need, the majority of which we get from processed and prepared food.

Like most Americans, I never gave much thought to my salt, or sodium intake. And for a while, I consciously ate as much sodium as I could. Of course, I was training for Ironman and half-Ironman distance races at the time. I’m a salty sweater, and in the heat and humidity of Georgia, having salt on board is essential if you are training for long periods outside. So eating a high salt diet was a way of life for me at the time.

After my last Ironman in 2004, I continued to eat a high salt diet even though I was no longer training 15 – 20 hours a week. Then I was dealt a devastating blow by my doctor. I was having issues with tinnitus (ringing) in my ear, hearing loss and periods of dizziness. One day I had a vertigo attack while I was brushing my teeth. Long story short, I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease. My doctor placed me on a low sodium diet, meaning no more than 1500 mg of sodium a day. This is the amount that is now recommended for over half of the American population (if you are African American, over 51 or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease).

At the time, I was completing my master’s in nutrition and dietetic internship. So while I had knowledge, putting it into practice was another story. It took some time for me to accept my diagnosis and the need for a low sodium diet. But I quickly realized that the only way to find relief from the dizzy fog I was living in was through dietary control. It also took time for my taste buds to adjust. But they did adjust after a few weeks to a low sodium diet. I also became much more adept at cooking without salt and  comparing food labels on everything I bought.

So, how did I do it? Here are some changes that I made:

  • Started making more of my own food from scratch, eating less processed foods and eating foods closer to their original form found in nature. While sodium does naturally occur in some foods like milk and certain vegetables, by eliminating or limiting processed or already prepared foods, I could enjoy more of these natural sources and be okay.
    • When choosing canned foods, I would find those with “no salt added” or I would rinse really well before using to reduce sodium content.
  • Bought a bread machine and began making all of my own bread. Baked goods are notoriously high in sodium because salt is a key ingredient, as well as found in baking soda and baking powder. There are salt-free or low sodium versions that can be purchased online or in health food stores. See the resources section below for websites that discuss baking without salt.
  • Changed my morning cereal to a shredded wheat type of cereal. These have practically no sodium compared to other types of cereal. Many of the Kashi cereals also tend to be lower in sodium than other brands. Also, making your own oatmeal (rather than using preportioned packets) is another strategy that I used.
  • Started using Swiss cheese almost exclusively as it is lower in sodium than other types of cheese. There are more reduced sodium cheeses available now as well.
  • When dining out, I asked for no salt to be added to my food. I found most servers and chefs were more than willing to honor my requests, even at ethnic restaurants where English was not the primary language.
  • Stopped using salt when I cooked. My base seasonings for everything is garlic powder, onion powder and black pepper. Then I use a variety of dried and fresh herbs and seasonsings, depending upon my mood and flavor that I want. Mrs. Dash makes a great line of salt-free seasonings and marinades.
    • Did you know that 1 teaspoon of table salt has 2325 mg of sodium in it? Kosher salt and sea salt have similar sodium content as table salt, but because the coarser grains are larger than table salt, you end up with less sodium per volume measure.

Here are some of the resources that I found helpful for low sodium cooking and cutting back on sodium:

Now you may not need to go to as drastic measures as I did, but everyone needs to be more mindful of how much sodium they are eating and be savvy shoppers by comparing food labels on the back of products and going with the lowest sodium numbers you find. Share with me your secrets for reducing sodium in your diet.