Every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture update their guidelines for healthy eating. According to the most recent edition, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, most of us exceed the recommendations for sodium and added calories from sugar and saturated fats, while not meeting the recommendations for fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
Notably, the new guidelines for sodium suggest limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg daily (1 teaspoon) for people over 14 and lower levels for kids younger than 14.
Why are these sodium restrictions important? High sodium levels can lead to hypertension, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and kidney failure. In fact, in 2010, 1.65 million people died globally from heart conditions related to sodium consumption higher than 2,000 mg per day.
And curbing sodium intake in kids is especially important. In fact, a recent study linked high sodium consumption with obesity in kids. Other studies show that reducing sodium intake in kids, and increasing fruits and veggies, may help prevent hypertension and heart disease during childhood and may reduce the risk later on in life. Plus, flavor preferences for salt and sugar start at a young age. So teaching kids to eat less sodium and form healthier tasting preferences are lifelong tools in promoting wellness.
March is National Nutrition Month, and this year's theme is "savor the flavor of eating right." As a registered dietitian and nutritionist, here are some of my favorite tips on how to flavor your food while reducing sodium and creating healthy food traditions for your family:
1. Adopt a whole foods diet.
One of the simplest ways to cut down on salt is to eat more fresh foods and fewer processed foods. About 70 percent of the salt in our diet is added during processing.
I recommend replacing deli and cured meats with fresh fish, chicken, or turkey breast for sandwiches. Watch out for salt in bread, and limit highly processed cheese, like American cheese (ricotta contains less sodium than most cheeses). Whenever possible, buy fresh or frozen vegetables. If you buy canned veggies or beans, rinse them first to get rid of some of the sodium.
And remember that canned foods such as soups and sauces are high in sodium, which is used as a preservative. Read nutrition labels and try to select products that have no added salt or are low sodium. A 2014 study showed that while decreasing salt in tomato soup initially decreased the consumption of the soup, adding spices to this soup and repeated exposure eventually led people to like it. Be patient and institute changes gradually.
People also don't often realize that condiments such as ketchup and BBQ sauce are high in sodium. Don’t forget to count the salt content as part of your daily intake.
Replace snacks like potato chips and pretzels with healthier choices such as unsalted nuts, seeds, or popcorn (without added butter, of course). Finally, limit seasonings with salt such as garlic salt, soy sauce, and MSG.
2. Use flavor-enhancing vegetables.
Aromatic veggies like garlic, onion, and celery have strong flavors that can enhance many dishes. Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, try a mirepoix—a mixture of two parts onions to one part celery and carrots—to add aromatics to the base of soups, sauces, and stews.
Reduce the amount of beef and add shiitake mushrooms to burgers to enhance the umami flavor while decreasing saturated fat. And use the juice and zest of citrus to add yummy flavor and brightness to dishes as well.
3. Replace salt with herbs and spices.
Swapping salt for herbs and spices not only reduces the health risks associated with sodium but may actually boost health benefits. That's because herbs and spices contain antioxidants and phenolic compounds, which may prevent disease and promote wellness in ways similar to fruits and veggies. Studies show that clove, oregano, and caraway have the highest antioxidant and phenolic properties. Since we tend to use herbs and spices in small quantities, get a variety throughout the week to get cumulative effects.
Spices and herbs are wonderful flavor enhancers and offer a range of flavors to accommodate different tastes, cuisines, and cultures. Use a variety as part of a healthy eating pattern to replace not just salt but also fat and sugars. For example, use cumin for Indian, Mexican, or Middle Eastern influence. Use basil for a Mediterranean influence. Use ginger for an Asian influence. And use paprika, a Hungarian spice, to add smokiness instead of bacon. In addition, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger are great choices to cut down sugar in sweet dishes and baked goods.