If you think a low-sodium diet is just for older people with high blood pressure, it's time to reconsider.
Medical experts say most of us — kids, elders, the healthy and the hypertensive — are getting way too much salt for good health. Excess sodium is directly linked with high blood pressure, a potential killer that eventually afflicts most Americans, but often gets started early in life. Sodium also is implicated in other serious conditions, such as osteoporosis and gastric cancer.
That's why the American Heart Association, the Institute of Medicine and other groups now are saying most Americans should aim for no more than 1,500mg a day, less than half what the average person takes in.
The federal government announced this month it's looking at cutting the salt in subsidized school meals. Next week it will be updating dietary recommendations, including those for sodium.
Even Walmart is getting into sodium reduction in a big way, announcing last week at a news conference with first lady Michelle Obama that it's going to reformulate some of its house brands to cut salt and sugar. Many other manufacturers have started this process, and you can expect others to join soon.
Why the push to reformulate processed food? Open your pantry, scan a few nutrition labels — even on products you might think are especially good for you — and you'll get the picture.
That Healthy Choice Hearty Chicken soup? It has 480mg of sodium in one cup; eat the whole can for lunch and you have nearly two-thirds of the new recommendation.
Maybe you like pancakes for breakfast? Just two made with Bisquick clock in at more than 400mg of sodium. You'll want syrup, too, and a quarter cup of Aunt Jemima Lite adds another 190mg to your meal. Swiss Miss No Sugar Added Hot Cocoa to wash it all down? Nothing salty about that . . . except the 170mg of sodium in each serving.
Allison Pernecky, a registered, licensed dietitian at Community Hospital in New Port Richey, says people are astonished at hidden sodium.
"The majority of people feel if they're not adding salt to their food, they're okay,'' she said. "They're surprised when I tell them as much as 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods.''
Sodium lurks in all kinds of places, such as sweet treats made with baking soda (1,000mg per teaspoon). Regular peanut butter packs 250mg in just 2 tablespoons. And boring old cottage cheese: 460mg in a half-cup.
Overwhelmed? Pernecky feels your pain.
"When you have a habit for a long time, it's hard to change. So I recommend people start gradually. Keep a food record for a few days just to see where you are, and what are your significant sources of sodium,'' she said. (www.Calorie King.com is a good site to get free nutrition data.)
Be patient. It can take a week or more for your palate to adjust to lower-salt food. So start with small changes.
Busy parents who have to get a meal on the table fast might rely on preseasoned rice mixes. But even "lower sodium'' Rice-a-Roni has more than 600mg per serving, the equivalent of a quarter-teaspoon of table salt. Try plain rice seasoned with fresh herbs or a dry spice mix like a Mrs. Dash variety.
"If you're cooking at home, you can be in control,'' Pernecky said.
But even at the drive-through, there are options, she said. Get a plain burger without the bacon and cheese. Try a baked potato or apple slices instead of fries. Do what you can.
"I work full time, I'm the mom of a 2-year-old, so I know how hard it is,'' Pernecky said. "I'm a dietitian and I don't always do it perfectly. You're always going to have splurges. It's the overall average that counts.''
But why should a healthy person cut back on something as tasty and hard to avoid as salt?
"Ninety percent of people will eventually develop hypertension,'' she said. "Why wouldn't you want to prevent that?
"Also, you want to be a good example for your children.''
Above all, Pernecky notes, foods that are naturally low in sodium (think fresh fruits, veggies, unprocessed grains, proteins) tend to be healthier in all ways.
"My overall philosophy is eating as close to natural as you possibly can, which will help you consume healthier foods. Weight loss can result, but even if that's not your goal, you'll look better, feel better and have more energy.''