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Excess sodium, a hidden culprit

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Salt recently made the news when the U.S.’s National Restaurant Association (NRA) took on New York over the city Board of Health decision to require restaurant chains with 15 units or more to place a salt shaker icon next to menu items or combo meals that exceed the recommended daily sodium intake of 2300 milligrams (mgs).

The reasons? The NRA calls the regulation “arbitrary and capricious” and “filled with irrational exclusions and nonsensical loopholes.” It may have a point, but it’s one that comes with a larger grain of salt.

In theory, a warning icon should steer diners away from unhealthful fare. There’s limited research to show this actually happens. Results of a study published in November by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine and New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service show that calorie labeling on menus doesn’t change food choices.

More specifically, the food scientists looked at itemized cash register receipts from nearly 8,000 people at four fast food restaurants over five years. They discovered no statistically significant changes in the amount of calories purchased or frequency of fast-food restaurant visits. The usefulness of menus icons should well be taken with a grain of salt.

Why worry about sodium?

Salt

Salt

Sodium is over-consumed worldwide. In fact, average global per capita consumption is nearly twice that recommended by health professionals. Eating too much sodium is linked to health ills such as high blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart disease. That’s why the World Health Organization recommends eating less than 2000 mgs of sodium daily.

The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in the U.S. goes one step further by saying that an additional decrease to 1500 mgs can result in an even greater reduction in blood pressure in some people.

Salt is the most common way we get sodium in our diets. It is a compound made up of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. One-quarter teaspoon of salt contains 2300 milligrams of sodium or an entire day’s suggested intake. It would be really easy to measure out this amount of salt and use it or less each day over foods to stay within the guidelines. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. That’s because salt gets on our plate in two other ways. One is the sodium naturally occurring in foods, and the other is salt added to foods during processing or at restaurants.

Instead of leaving it to icons on restaurant menus, what is better is to learn how to control sodium intake in everything and everywhere we eat. Here’s how:

  • Cut down on processed and restaurant-prepared foods. According to the U.S. American Heart Association, more than 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from processed foods or those prepared at restaurants. The best way to reduce sodium from these sources is to prepare more fresh foods at home from scratch.
  • Leave the salt shaker on the shelf. Instead, use herbs, spices, lemons, limes, peppers and onions for seasoning.
  • Use naturally high sodium foods to advantage. One-cup servings of fresh, uncooked vegetables such as beets, carrots, turnips, beet greens, celery, Swiss chard and sweet potatoes each provide from 70 to 100 mg of sodium. This ranks high in the vegetable world. However, instead of not eating these veggies, use them as natural sources of sodium in side dishes, salads and soups. These veggies are rich in other healthful nutrients, too.

Most of all, remember that no one food — whether it’s high in sodium or not — is good or bad. Rather, it’s what you eat day in and day out. If you crave a once-a-year birthday meal of Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy — a plateful of chicken parmesan, classic lasagna and fettuccine alfredo — eat it.

Then, since this menu choice provides a day and a half’s worth of sodium and would definitely get a salt shaker icon in New York City, make lower sodium choices in the rest of your meals.

The old rule applies: Everything in moderation. Maybe this motto should be made into an icon for all foods.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Contact her through www.the-triton.com/author/carol-bareuther.

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