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Sodium … how much is too much?

Sodium is a part of everyone’s diet, but how much is too much? Under ideal conditions, the minimum sodium requirement is about 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. This is less than 1 teaspoon of table salt. The maximum recommended level of sodium intake is 2,300 mg per day. On average, American men consume between 3,100 and 4,700 mg of sodium per day, while women consume between 2,300 and 3,100 mg.

Sodium intake is one factor involved in the development of high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension. Hypertension tends to develop as we get older. Some individuals are “salt sensitive,” so reducing intake of sodium helps to reduce blood pressure levels. A high intake of sodium early in life might weaken defenses against developing high blood pressure later. Experts recommend not to wait and see if you develop hypertension, but to reduce sodium intake while blood pressure is still normal. This may decrease your risk of developing hypertension.

Other important considerations are healthful eating, maintaining ideal body weight, physical exercise, stress management and the amount of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet. Foods rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium are strongly recommended as protective measures against hypertension.

Why is sodium needed?

Sodium has an important role in maintaining the water balance within cells and in the function of both nerve impulses and muscles. Any extra sodium is excreted by the kidneys. Consuming excess sodium may lead to edema or water retention. Women who consume excess sodium may be at higher risk for developing osteoporosis even if calcium intake is adequate.

Athletes and heavy laborers are sometimes concerned about not getting enough sodium to replace what is lost through perspiration. However, salt tablets are not recommended. They may increase dehydration and actually lower performance. Sodium losses are easily replenished at the next meal.

Where is sodium found?

Many people think of salt and sodium as being the same thing, but they are not. Table salt is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. It is the sodium portion of salt that is important to people concerned about high blood pressure. Keep in mind some sodium is naturally present in most foods.

Most of the sodium in processed foods is added to preserve or flavor them. Salt is the major source of this sodium. Salt is added to most canned and some frozen vegetables, smoked and cured meats, pickles and sauerkraut. It is used in most cheeses, sauces, soups, salad dressings and many breakfast cereals. It is also found in many other ingredients used in food processing. The food industry is trying to find ways to decrease sodium while ensuring food safety.

Watch out for commercially prepared condiments, sauces and seasonings when preparing and serving foods for you and your family. Many of these are high in sodium.

Salt-sodium conversions

The link between salt and sodium may be a little hard to understand at first. If you remember that one teaspoon of salt provides 2,000 milligrams of sodium, however, you can estimate the amount of sodium that you add to foods during cooking and preparation, or even at the table.

1/4 tsp. salt = 500 mg sodium

1/2 tsp. salt = 1,000 mg sodium

3/4 tsp. salt = 1,500 mg sodium

1 tsp. salt = 2,000 mg sodium

Steps to reduce sodium

Use the following suggestions as starting points to reduce sodium in your diet.

Cover up some of the holes on the salt shaker or take it off the table. Learn to enjoy food’s natural taste.

Use more fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. The more processed the food is, the more sodium it may contain.

Use canola oil or olive oil instead of butter or margarine in cooking.

Check food labels for the words salt or sodium. Salt often is used as a preservative or flavoring agent.

Season foods with herbs and spices rather than salt.

Do not use salt substitutes, especially those that contain potassium, without first talking to your doctor.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist for the sodium content of medications, especially antacids, cough medicines, laxatives and pain relievers.

Try products such as low or reduced sodium to curb sodium intake. Shop carefully. These products can be more expensive. Make sure the reduction in sodium justifies the added cost.

Plan meals that contain less sodium. Try new recipes that use less salt and sodium-containing ingredients. Adjust your own recipes by reducing these ingredients a little at a time. Don’t be fooled by recipes that have little or no salt added but call for ingredients like soups, bouillon cubes or condiments that do.

Make your own condiments, dressings and sauces and keep sodium-containing ingredients at a minimum.

Cut back on salt used in cooking pasta, rice, noodles, vegetables and hot cereals.

Taste your food before you salt it. If, after tasting your food, you must salt it, try one shake instead of two.

If using canned food, rinse in water to remove some of the salt before preparing or serving.

Sources: University of Florida Extension, Colorado Cooperative Extension

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Chicken Fried Rice

This recipe contains less sodium than fried rice made with regular soy sauce.

1 tablespoon corn oil or safflower oil

1/2 cup grated carrots

1 cup cooked, chopped chicken breasts, skin and bones removed

1 egg and 1 egg white,* lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3 cups cooked brown rice

3 tablespoons lite soy sauce

2/3 cup scallions, sliced

In a wok or skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add carrots and chicken. Stir-fry 1 minute. Add eggs and pepper and stir-fry 1 minute. Add rice and soy sauce. Stir-fry 5 minutes. Garnish with scallions. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Approx. per serving: 200 calories; 5 grams fat; 350 mg sodium.

Sandra R. Cain is the Bladen County Extension director. She can be reached at sandra_cain@ncsu.edu.

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Sodium … how much is too much?
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