Q: I follow a healthful diet, but I don't really pay much attention to my salt intake. Should I be concerned?
A: Yes, for two reasons: First, salt raises blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure or if high blood pressure runs in your family, it pays to limit salt. Second, salt causes your body to lose calcium. When I was growing up in Fargo, N.D., we used salt to melt ice on wintry sidewalks. It also melts your bones, in a manner of speaking. That is, salt triggers your kidneys to send calcium into your urine. The more salt in the foods you eat, the more calcium you lose, and that can contribute to bone loss.
Q: Which foods have the most salt?
A: Canned foods, such as vegetables and soups, are usually loaded with it. But don't blame the vegetables.
In nature, green beans, carrots, spinach, and other vegetables have almost no sodium. If you buy them fresh or frozen, they stay that way. But food companies learned long ago that consumers like the taste of added salt. Sprinkle a 1/2 cup of canned chickpeas onto your salad, and you've just added nearly 360 milligrams of sodium. Pull one kosher dill pickle spear out of a jar, and along with it comes about 300 milligrams of sodium. A 1/2 cup of commercial spaghetti sauce may hold more than 500 milligrams of sodium. Snack foods, such as potato chips and pretzels, are also loaded with salt. An ounce of tortilla chips, which is only about seven chips, packs about 120 milligrams of sodium, and a 1/4 cup of the salsa you dip them in delivers 384 milligrams (again, the tomatoes aren't to blame; the salt was added at the factory).
Dairy products are a surprisingly large contributor. A glass of low-fat milk has about 110 milligrams of sodium -- nearly the same as the tortilla chip serving mentioned above. But wait until you arrive at the cheese counter. A 2-ounce serving of Cheddar or Muenster has more than 350 milligrams of sodium. A similar serving of Edam has nearly 550, feta has more than 630, and 2 ounces of Velveeta have almost 840 milligrams of sodium.
Q: Is it best to avoid salt completely?
A: No. Your body requires a small amount of sodium, about 230 milligrams, a day for its basic needs, and an additional 1,300 or so to make up for losses in perspiration and urine, depending on how physically active you are. Also, commercial salt can be a handy source of iodine, which your body uses to make thyroid hormone. You dont' need salt for this purpose: you'll also find traces of iodine in vegetables and fruits; seaweeds, such as kelp or nori, are also loaded with it.
The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but I believe that a sensible upper limit is about 2,000 milligrams per day. If you are getting too much, as most people are, it is surprisingly easy to cut back. Be sure to look for low-sodium products. Rinsing canned vegetables or beans removes much, although not all, of the added salt. If you stop adding salt in cooking and stop using it at the table, foods may seem bland for the first week or so. But as your taste buds adapt, foods will once again seem totally normal. That is, until someone adds extra salt to your foods. You'll find that intolerable!
Q: Does it matter what kind of salt I buy?
A: Very much so. The salt products available at stores differ greatly. Ordinary iodized salt provides iodine, of course, which will not matter to you if your diet already has plenty. Sea salt typically lacks iodine, but may contain other minerals, such as calcium or magnesium. "Low-sodium" salt products contain potassium chloride, rather than sodium chloride. Potassium does not raise blood pressure, and may even reduce it. You will also find salt substitutes, such as Mrs. Dash, that are mixtures of dried herbs and spices, such as onion, black pepper, parsley, celery seed, and others. Getting away from extra salt does your body a favor. It may take a little time to adapt to the lighter taste, but it's well worth it.