Could you be one of the 9 out of 10 Americans who consume too much salt? Although the Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams daily (about 1 teaspoon), most Americans far surpass that number. And the American Heart Association says even 2,300 milligrams is too much, advising that most American adults aim for a sodium limit of 1,500 milligrams daily.
Sodium is an essential nutrient that the body requires in small amounts, but eating too much of it can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke and even kidney disease. Since blood pressure generally rises as you get older, monitoring your sodium intake as you age is even more important.
But where is all of this sodium coming from? According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 25% of our sodium intake comes from restaurants where it can be challenging to see how much sodium is in your meal. Approximately 10% comes from home cooking and at the table, but a whopping 65% comes from food bought in stores where you have the ability to look for lower sodium choices.
There are also specific high-sodium foods to be mindful of if you are trying to prioritize your heart health; the American Heart Association has identified several popular foods known as the "salty six" that add high levels of sodium to the standard American diet. The most popular high sodium foods include breads and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soup, and burritos and tacos.
Opting for low-sodium foods, defined as 140 mg of sodium or less per serving, can help keep your salt intake at bay. Even choosing items labeled "reduced sodium" or "no salt added" can make a difference. But there are some foods that are naturally low in sodium that are worth incorporating into your diet:
1. Dry Peas and Beans
Beans, peas and lentils are all rich sources of plant-based protein and fiber that can significantly benefit heart health. Plus, they are naturally low in fat and free from cholesterol. Boiling dry legumes is a great option since they contain practically no sodium at all. Canned beans and legumes can be a convenient alternative but are often packed with excess salt, so opt for varieties that say "low-sodium" on the label. You can also rinse or drain beans to reduce their sodium content.
Most fruits are low-sodium and some are even considered sodium-free. Apples, apricots, bananas, grapefruit, oranges and most berries are among the variety of fruits that are considered sodium-free. Not only are fruits a naturally low in sodium choice, but they are also chockfull of powerful antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber which can all support a healthy heart. Fruits add natural sweetness and flavor to practically any dish as well without the need for incorporating excess salt or sugar.
In addition to supporting a healthy gut, research shows that this fermented dairy product may actually decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke. Plain yogurt is naturally low in sodium, but flavored varieties can sometimes sneak in added sugars and salt so be sure to check the nutrition label. Opt for plain yogurt when you can and sweeten it naturally with fruit. Greek yogurt packs in even more protein and can be a great heart-healthy diet option too.
4. Unsalted Nuts and Seeds
Nuts offer a satisfying crunchy texture and plant-based protein in every bite. Recent research indicates that individuals who regularly ate nuts had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. Opt for unsalted and raw nut varieties when you can. If giving up salted nuts is a hefty task, try making your own mix of half salted nuts and half unsalted nuts to help cut down on sodium while still getting great flavor. Some super nutritious nuts like GH nutritionist-approved California Walnuts even contain omega-3 fatty acids that can also support a healthy heart and are worth incorporating into your trail mix recipe.
Both fruits and vegetables contain important nutrients that can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Some naturally sodium-free vegetables include asparagus, green beans, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic and squash. Research suggests that increasing your vegetable intake, especially with an emphasis on leafy greens like spinach and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, may provide the most significant heart health benefits. Preparation matters too, so when cooking veggies try to opt for steaming, air frying or roasting methods instead of deep frying and go easy with the salt shaker.
6. Ancient Grains
Farro, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, kamut, freekeh, barley, bulgur, quinoa... the list of nutrient-dense delicious ancient grains can go on and on. Dietary staples in many parts of the world, ancient grains are becoming increasingly popular in Western countries as they tend to be less processed than other more commonly widespread grains. You'll notice that most ancient grains have little to no sodium content, making them a great choice for a low-sodium diet. But the key here again lies in preparation; try to prepare ancient grains with just plain water or using a low-sodium broth.
7. Herbs and Spices
An array of good quality herbs and spices can make all the difference in the kitchen, while also helping you dramatically cut down on added sugar and sodium in recipes. That's because herbs and spices naturally add a ton of bright flavor and depth to dishes. Experiment with fresh herbs you may not be used to, like cooking with sage or trying out mint in a salad for vibrant flavor. Take a look at your spice cabinet and plan a meal around a spice that you normally wouldn't reach for, like turmeric or cumin. When it comes to marinades and pre-made seasonings, sodium counts can creep up so it is best to make your own when you can. GH nutritionist-approved DASH seasonings have some innovative blends and marinades that are free from salt, making them a perfect staple in your heart-healthy pantry.
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