The dose23:19How do I reduce salt in my diet?
Do you know how much salt you ate today?
Chances are it’s more than a teaspoon, or five grams, which is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended daily intake of sodium.
A recent WHO report reported that Canadians consume an average of 9.1 grams of salt per day, nearly double the recommended amount.
And the majority of that salt — more than 75 percent — comes from restaurant meals and processed foods, according to diet experts.
“The first thing I remind my patients is that most of the salt they get is probably not the salt they add. It’s the salt that’s already in their diet,” said family medicine resident Dr. Mary Sco. at Women’s College Hospital, who also holds a doctorate in nutritional sciences.
Besides restaurant meals, many common processed foods that we buy at the grocery store contain high amounts of sodium.
“The three major food categories that contribute the most sodium to our diets are baked goods, mixed meals and processed meats,” Samantha Chabior, a dietitian in Toronto, told CBC. The dose host Dr. Brian Goldman.
Mixed dishes include things like pizza, lasagna, and frozen dinners. Soup, cheese, sauces and condiments are also big contributors to sodium in our diets, Chabior said.
It may come as a surprise to people that products like bread, muffins and cookies are often high in salt.
“These foods don’t really taste very salty, so I like to call them sneaky sources of sodium because they’re really unexpected,” she added.
What does too much salt do to the body?
Sodium actually helps the body retain water, Chabior said.
“So when we eat too much sodium, it can cause extra fluid to be sucked into our blood vessels and put extra pressure on our blood vessels.”
Over time, the blood vessels become stretched by this pressure.
“They respond by reshaping, getting thicker and tighter, and then that raises your blood pressure long term,” Sco said.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the most significant risk factor for heart disease, Sco said, and heart disease is a leading cause of death and disability in Canada.
In 2020, nearly 54,000 people died of heart disease in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
High blood pressure can also increase the risk of stroke and kidney disease, Sco said. And that’s not all.
“Salt makes people drink more. And if you’re drinking more sugary or high-calorie drinks because you’re eating more salt, that can be a problem too,” Sco said.
How can we reduce salt?
Knowing all the risks associated with excessive salt consumption is one thing, but making changes to our diet can be difficult.
The biggest advice from experts is to eat less at restaurants and cook at home using whole, unprocessed foods whenever you can.
Chabior advises focusing on whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as unprocessed meat, poultry and fish.
She recommends skipping the salt and adding these ingredients for flavor instead:
- Acidic foods like vinegar and lemon juice.
- Aromatics like ginger, garlic and onion.
- Fresh and dried herbs and spices.
- Pre-mixed salt-free seasoning blends.
Sco and Chabior acknowledged that cooking more whole foods at home can be challenging for some.
“There’s the cost of food, which can be a barrier. Then there’s also the time and preparation needed to prepare healthy, homemade meals,” Sco said.
“These processed foods tend to be generally a bit cheaper, more affordable. So depending on someone’s income or lifestyle, it may not be as possible to cook more at home,” Chabior said. .
But swapping a salty snack like crackers or fries with a piece of fruit, unsalted nuts or air-popped popcorn is a good first step, Sco said.
Reading nutrition labels is essential
When grocery shopping, experts recommend reading nutrition labels to see how much sodium is in a product, then choosing one with a smaller amount.
“Percent Daily Value can tell you if there are a few or a lot of nutrients in foods. And when you see five percent or less for sodium, that means the foods are low in sodium,” Chabior said.
“If it’s over 15% of the Daily Value, that means it’s high in sodium.”
It can be difficult to determine how much you’re getting in a day, she says, so Chabior recommends her patients use a online sodium tracker.
When eating out, check the restaurant’s website ahead of time for nutrition information, provided by most major chains, Chabior said.
And remember those hidden sources of sodium.
“Whether it’s the breads that are part of our appetizer or our dips, if there are sauces or sauces, try to ask for them on the side,” Chabior said.
WHO recommends mandatory regulations
Despite our best efforts, however, reducing salt intake is difficult, said Dr. Norm Campbell, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Calgary.
“That’s why we really need demographic approaches, government approaches with regulations.”
For years, Campbell has advocated for more government sodium regulations in Canada.
He said a national sodium reduction strategy was created in 2010, but implementation has been “very slow.”
Sco said sodium warnings on the front of packaged processed foods containing excess sodium are expected to arrive in Canada within the next two years, helping consumers make more informed choices.
“The first step is just to make sure that we give people as much information as possible about the sodium content of their foods,” Sco said.
Other jurisdictions have gone further than Canada to create government regulations regarding both sodium warning labels and maximum sodium levels in certain foods.
In 2015, New York City began requiring its restaurant chains to add warning labels to any meal containing more than the recommended daily allowance for sodium.
Argentina passed a comprehensive law in 2022 that includes mandatory front-of-package warning labels about excess sodium, as well as excess sugars and fats.
Will my taste buds adapt?
There can be a lot of reluctance to reduce salt due to the change in taste, Sco said.
“People notice when there’s less salt in a food,” she said.
“But research has shown that, gradually, as you decrease the amount of sodium you eat, your taste buds recalibrate and become more sensitive to the taste of salt.”
That means it’s possible for manufacturers to lower sodium levels while still creating an appealing product, Campbell said.
“When we talk to manufacturers or individuals, we ask them to change their salt intake more gradually so they don’t notice any changes in food quality or taste,” he said.
Chabior agrees with a gradual approach and said it’s sometimes okay to eat salty foods.
“The little changes really add up. We don’t have to do it all or nothing,” Chabior said.
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