(ThinkStock Photos)The average American consumes up to three teaspoons of salt a day. The American Heart Association wants to knock that down to less than one teaspoon. The new guidelines have reduced the recommended salt and sodium intake from 2300 to 1500. That's about a third less than the original recommendation, which we were already exceeding by two teaspoons.
The stricter guidelines may mean less flavor, but the payoff is a longer life span. Reducing sodium is the first line of defense in the nation's number one killer: heart disease. In fact, a 30-year study in Finland found that reducing salt intake by 30 percent led to a 75 percent decrease in both stroke and heart disease mortality. The revised sodium diet elevated the entire country's average life expectancy by 6 to 7 years. Now the AHA is hoping for similar results in the United States, but it will mean a nutrition overhaul.
Many of the foods we consider healthy are saturated in salt. According to the Center for Disease Control, packaged and processed foods, like canned soups or seasoned rice mixes, are responsible for over three quarters of our average salt intake.
Making small substitutes could make all the difference. Just three ounces of processed ham contains 1300 mg of salt. Compare that to 60 mg accrued from the same serving size of lean, unseasoned meat. Canned veggies have up to 10 times the amount of sodium of fresh veggies. Even frozen vegetables are lower in salt than those in a can. But if you're stuck with wax beans or a can of tuna, rinse them in a strainer before you eat to eliminate the sodium-laden water it's been soaking in. Don't be fooled by labels that proclaim "lower sodium" and stick with canned food with the label "no salt".
Sauces and dressings should also be used with discretion. A half-cup of pasta sauce racks up almost half your maximum salt requirements for the day. Make your own salt-free version with fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and oregano. A single serving of ranch dressing over a bowl of leafy greens sets you back 300 mg. Instead, concoct a low-salt dressing of oil, lemon juice, and herbs. The National Institute of Health has a plethora of heart-healthy seasoning recommendations for boosting flavor in salt-free main courses: Meats, fish, and sauces can be seasoned with mustard, dill, curry powder, lemon juice, paprika, oregano and rosemary. Another easy cut from your dietary team: flavored drinks, which have up to 220 mg in a bottle.
"Even a modest decline in intake - say 400 mg per day - would produce benefits that are substantial and warrant implementation," according to the AHA advisory committee.
It's not all about elimination. Adding potassium-rich foods, like potatoes, avocado and yogurt, helps neutralize the effects of salt. To meet the ideal amount of daily potassium (around 4700 mg), try a baked potato with skin (925 mg), a cup of sliced avocado (1000 mg), a bag of dried apricots or peaches (600-1200mg), or 2 cups of spinach (1200mg).
Be warned: ordering a baked potato or a side of spinach in a restaurant can counteract all your healthy intentions. With eateries one of the culprits of our high-sodium addiction, it's better to risk upsetting the chef, than upsetting your diet. Request the sauce on the side and limit yourself to a dip or two, or request a salt-free preparation. Then when the waiter comes by with the fresh pepper mill, go for broke. A little extra pepper will help you rebound from salt, and keep your heart from breaking.
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