August 29th, 2012 / posted by paularath

Salt flats in Lake Eyre, Australia. Photo by Murray Fredericks

This might sound too good to be true but ever since I left the hospital my doctor has encouraged me to eat potato chips, the saltiest ones I can find – and lots of them. So I have been consuming Maui Style potato chips by the bagful.  (Note: I can’t just salt my cooking because Jerry has high blood pressure and isn’t supposed to eat salt.)

Why all the salt? Well, apparently spinal cord injuries frequently result in weird blood pressure issues. My blood pressure has been dangerously low (like 75/45 or 80/50 sometimes). So I am supposed to eat salt to help bring my BP up. Yesterday, for the first time since I broke my neck on March 2, my blood pressure was normal. Great news, medically speaking, but now I’m addicted to potato chips and the flavor of salt. So how am I going to reduce the salt in my diet?

I went to a trusted source, the Harvard Medical School’s HealthLetter, for information. Here’s what they said about conquering a salt habit.

Nine out of ten Americans eat too much salt and most of that salt isn’t coming from the salt shaker, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Our bodies work to maintain a delicate balance of sodium and water. When we eat salt (sodium) the body pulls in or holds onto extra fluid to keep this balance. The extra fluid increases blood volume. “If there’s more fluid in your blood vessels, there’s more circulating blood volume and that raises blood pressure,” explained Dr. Helen Delichatsios, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Having high blood pressure increases our risk for a heart attack or stroke.

A study published in the journal “Stroke” linked high salt intake with an increased risk of stroke. Stroke risk increased for each additional 500 mg of salt the participants consumed in a day. That’s not very much by our typical daily salt standards. For example, one ounce of processed American cheese has 422 mg of sodium.

How much you need

Our bodies need sodium, so salt itself isn’t bad. It’s the amount of salt we eat that’s concerning. The average American eats about 3,300 mg of salt daily, but U.S. guidelines recommend that most people get less than 2.300 mg of salt a day. Those of us who are ages 51 or older should eat even less, keeping intake to 1,500 mg a day. That’s just over 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Where salt hides

The list of salty foods seems obvious: potato chips, popcorn, soup and other canned foods, hot dogs. Yet sodium lurks in foods that may surprise you. The CDC’s list of top sodium offenders includes breads and rolls, pizza, poultry, sandwiches, cheese and pasta dishes. More than 40 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from go-to foods like these. Since sodium is everywhere, how can we cut back?

Start by reading food labels. Look at the amount of sodium per serving and also at the percentage of daily recommended sodium allowance. Consider using products labeled “salt free” or “no salt added” or “low sodium.”

Try not to add sodium to the foods you eat. Other seasonings such as garlic, cumin and vinegar, can add flavor to food without compromising heart health. Avoid condiments such as shoyu (sigh!), ketchup, teriyaki sauce and salad dressings, which tend to be loaded with sodium. At restaurants, ask to have food prepared without salt.

Even if we have come to rely on salt to enhance the taste of our foods, we can unlearn this unhealthy habit. “It is possible to train your taste buds,” Dr. Delichaatsios says. “If you reduce your amount of salt over time, food won’t taste bland to you.”

"Chili," acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, by Paula Rath

In our house, Hatch chili is the secret to adding flavor without salt. Jerry is from southern New Mexico, where Hatch chili, reputed to be the best in the nation, is grown. We buy it from the farmers and keep a huge stash in our freezer at all times. It’s our secret weapon for heart health! Williams Sonoma has some excellent powdered chili in a jar. Just look for the label “New Mexico Chili Powder.” it sells for $7.95.

– Paula Rath

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