Heart disease in the number one killer in the United States, causing nearly 600,000 deaths in 2010 according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And there’s something we’re all eating that can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. Hint: it’s not sugar, spice, and everything nice.
Sodium: A Hidden Culprit for Heart Disease
Sodium, or salt, has slowly been dominating the U.S. food supply as adults and children are consuming more and more processed foods and drinks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are partnering up to identify ways to reduce sodium in the food supply. A healthy adult on a diet of 2,000 calories per day has a recommended sodium intake of 2,400 mg, which is what the percentage on nutrition labels is based off of. But that’s only for American adults in full health. For those who are overweight or have been advised to limit sodium intake by their clinicians, daily sodium intake shouldn’t exceed 1,500 mg per day, according to the FDA. It can be difficult to get your sodium levels under control, especially if you’re living off a diet of processed foods.
“The biggest misconception about sodium is that most people think that you aren’t eating salt as long as you are not adding it to your food with the saltshaker,” says Alexandra Kaplan, M.S. and R.D. at the Montefiore Medical Center. “In fact, more than 75 percent of the sodium that we consume comes from processed and packaged foods. Salt is used to preserve foods and provide texture, so it is a common additive."
Sodas, energy drinks, and electrolyte-enhanced "waters" are huge hidden culprits of sodium, says Ilana Strauss, R.D. and nutritionist. “There’s a such a big amount of sodium in sodas that I often tell my patients if they took away all the sugar, it would taste as salty as sea water,” says Strauss. Sodas, juices, and sports drinks—basically everything we’re drinking that’s not water, says Strauss—are sneaky ways that sodium can sneak into your diet.
“Moms think that their kids are being healthy and drinking juice, but actually they’re getting a lot of sodium as well,” says Strauss. And even for kids, who many might assume are safe from high blood pressure risk, are more susceptible to harm if they have high-sodium diets. Children who consume the most sodium double their risk of having high blood pressure, and kids who are overweight or obese triple their risk, reports the CDC.
Cutting Down Sodium Intake: Avoid the "Salty Six" and Cook from Scratch
While those that are already at risk for high blood pressure or are overweight or obese should definitely be monitoring sodium intake, “Even people with normal blood pressure should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day in order to prevent stress on your heart,” says Kaplan. Reduce your sodium intake by avoiding the "Salty Six":
- Cold cuts and cured meats: “The process of curing meats uses salt, and store-bought cold cuts (even the low-sodium variety) are high in sodium,” says Kaplan. To avoid super salty turkey, Kaplan recommends cooking and slicing your own turkey to reduce sodium intake by as much as 200 mg per slice.
- Pizza: “Pizza is a huge contributor of sodium intake in our diets because almost all of the ingredients are high in sodium,” says Kaplan. Switching things up and making pizza from scratch can be a great, fun way to get involved in the kitchen and load up on tasty veggies.
- Bread: The CDC found that a large percentage of the sodium in our diets comes from bread, says Kaplan. “While each slice isn’t very high in sodium, because we eat so much bread throughout the day, the sodium adds up,” she says. Other prepackaged carbohydrates like cakes and cookies are hidden sodium bombs, says Strauss, so make sure to check nutrition labels before purchasing.
- Sandwiches: Premade sandwiches utilize two other sodium red flags—bread and cold cuts. With added cheese and sauces, sandwiches can be sodium bombs. Try making them at home and choose low-sodium options for a healthier meal.
- Soup: Canned soup can range from 100 mg to as much as 940 mg, according to the American Heart Association. While making soup at home might seem like a major endeavor, you can cook up a big batch of soup at the beginning of the week using fresh ingredients and very little to no salt. Portion out homemade soups into storage containers and freeze to keep low-sodium options at the ready.
- Poultry: Packaged and prepared poultry can contain varying levels of sodium, so cooking it at home is always the best option.
One of the best ways to reduce sodium intake if possible, says Strauss, is to simply cook from scratch. But cooking "at home" and cooking "from scratch," are two different things, she says. Premade chicken nuggets or processed meals that you can make at home are loaded with sodium, so they’re not really any better than getting a meal from a fast food or sit-down restaurant. Strauss recommends cooking from scratch and following this simple rule: if you season during cooking, no salt at the table. Salt at the table means no salt during cooking.