What is salt and how much should we be eating?
Salt – also known as sodium chloride – is a mineral that is made up of ~40% sodium and 60% chloride. It is added to food for a number of reasons, for example for flavour and taste, to cure food, and also to act as a preservative and limit bacterial growth (1).
While current dietary guidelines in Australia and New Zealand recommend consuming 2000 mg or less per day – equivalent to 1 teaspoon or 5g – the reality is most Aussies are exceeding this amount. In fact, according to the Heart Foundation’s position statement in 2018, Australians were consuming 9g/day – nearly doubling the daily recommendation (1).
What happens when we eat too much salt?
Our kidneys have the important role of controlling the amount of salt in our blood. When we consume too much salt in our diet, this puts extra pressure on the kidneys to work harder due to fluid retention and can increase our blood volume and blood pressure (2). Over time, this increases the risk of heart disease and stroke (2). Also, consuming too much salt in our diet can result in calcium being leached from our bones and excreted through our urine, which may increase the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis (3).
How to lower sodium intake
Here are 7 tips on how to reduce salt in food to reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your heart health:
1. Eat more wholefoods that are naturally lower in salt
When grocery shopping each week, ensure your trolley is filled with foods that are minimally processed and naturally lower in salt, for example fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables (4). Also, when choosing proteins, opt for the fresh, plain varieties for example chicken, salmon and lean red meat cuts versus packaged meats that have added sauces or marinades, or processed varieties. The less processed the food is, the more likely it is to be lower in salt.
2. Reduce consumption of processed foods
Approximately 75-80% of the salt we consume in our diet comes from packaged and processed foods like packed snacks e.g. chips and crackers, bottled or sachet sauces, condiments, dressings, ready-made meals and fast foods (1).
To reduce salt, cut back on these foods and swap them for lower-salt varieties. It may seem overwhelming to cut all these foods out at once, so make one change each week. For example, when shopping for your weekly snacks, opt for a piece of fruit, a handful of unsalted nuts or a greek yoghurt vs a packet of chips or pretzels.
3. Read nutrition labels and opt for low-salt varieties
In Australia, all manufactured and packaged foods are required to have a nutrition information panel (NIP) and ingredients list. When choosing packaged food, look at the sodium content on the NIP and adopt the approach that less is best. Foods that have less than 400mg of sodium per 100g are good, but foods that have less than 120mg per 100g are best (4,5).
Also, when comparing the sodium levels of similar foods e.g. different types of bread, always use the per 100g column. Why? Because serving sizes are dictated by the manufacturer, and are often different from each other. Lastly, when choosing staples like canned tomatoes or stock, always look out for products that are labelled “low sodium/salt” or “reduced sodium/salt”.
4. Limit your consumption of processed meats
Another strategy on how to reduce salt in food is limiting processed meats in your diet. Ham, bacon, salami, sausages, prosciutto, hot dogs and other deli meats are very high in salt and have also been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Where possible, limit your consumption of processed meats and swap for fresh, lower salt alternatives such as chicken, salmon, tuna or plant-based varieties such as legumes or eggs (5).
5. Use herbs and spices to flavour food instead of salt
Here are some DIY flavour combinations you can try to reduce salt when cooking:
- Mexican: chilli, paprika, cumin and coriander
- Greek: garlic, oregano and mint
- Thai: lemongrass, chilli, ginger and garlic
- Italian: basil, oregano, garlic and thyme
- Spanish: garlic, paprika, thyme and saffron
- Moroccan: cumin, cinnamon, garlic and ginger
Other great flavourings you can use in your cooking to reduce salt include pepper, lemon and lime juice and vinegar.
6. Reduce salt and (salty sauces) at the dinner table
During meal times, keep the salt shaker in the pantry rather than offering it on the dinner table. While it may sound simple, it’s an easy way to reduce your intake of salt, and also role model healthy habits for your family too. This rule should also be applied to sauces such as tomato and BBQ sauces, mustards, soy sauces and chutneys. Keep them aside for special occasions (4).
7. Limit fast food and restaurant dining to special occasions
Restaurant meals and fast food options typically contain much more salt compared to meals you would prepare at home. To reduce salt in your diet, keep fast food foods to a minimum, and aim to dine out once a week. When dining at a restaurant, you can still be mindful of your intake of salt by opting for a side salad with dressing on the side, asking for no salt to be added to your meal and avoiding adding salt and sauces at the table.
The take-home message
There are a number of changes you can make to reduce salt in your eating plan and reduce your risk of heart disease. It typically takes around 6-8 weeks for your tastebuds to adapt to consuming less salt, so your acquired taste can be unlearned.
When making changes to your eating plan and overall lifestyle, personalised support is the key to success. If you’d like to learn more about how to lower salt intake and reduce your risk of heart disease, book your free assessment to learn more about our programs at Heart Smart Australia, and how we can help you today.