Cooking at home allows you to know and control the amount of salt added to your dish when monitoring your sodium intake

It’s a piece of advice that we’ve all heard. Reduce your sodium to improve your heart health. But does sodium truly affect your heart, or is this advice now outdated? First, let’s discuss sodium and its importance to the body. Sodium is a common mineral and represents an essential part of the proper functioning of our bodies. Without sodium, we wouldn’t be able to live, so before continuing, it’s important to understand that it wouldn’t be healthy or practical to eliminate sodium from our lives. However, most of us consume far too much sodium, typically in the form of salt.

The concern we, as cardiologists, have about sodium revolves around excess amounts in the bloodstream. By consuming too much sodium, water is pulled into the bloodstream, increasing its total volume. Because of this additional blood volume, blood pressure increases and can lead to injury to those blood vessels. Further, this can lead to the blockage of the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. Lastly, the heart needing to work harder to pump blood throughout the body increases the likelihood of longer-term congestive heart failure.

Some of us are more sensitive to sodium than others. For those with sodium sensitivity, the above effects can be enhanced, making for an even higher risk of cardiovascular trouble.

Understanding High Bood Pressure

As most of us know, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and high blood pressure is a significant risk factor and culprit for it. If we were to control blood pressure as a society better, Americans would experience longer and fuller lives. High blood pressure is also insidious because, while very easy to diagnose, it has very few outward symptoms. And it is estimated that nine out of 10 American adults will develop high blood pressure over their lifetimes. Of course, we have medication to help with blood pressure, but ultimately improving one’s health naturally is the best way to manage the condition.

Reducing the Amount of Sodium You Consume

We must understand a couple of truths as we explore how to reduce the amount of sodium we consume. First, it is not always obvious where the sodium in our diet comes from. If you were to eliminate the saltshaker from home, you’d barely move the needle in reducing your sodium intake. This is because most of the sodium we consume is added to packaged foods and restaurant dishes (when the food is pre-made. For us). Next time you’re in the grocery store or at a chain restaurant, check out their nutrition labels to see just how much sodium you’ll be consuming. You might find that what seems like a regular portion of food contains the entire allowance of daily sodium. Some dishes may have two or even three times the amount of sodium you should be consuming in a day.

Second, you must understand why sodium-filled foods taste so good. The simple fact is that as we consume more sodium, our taste buds are numbed to the effects. This means that we need more and more sodium for the food to taste good. Eventually, a high sodium level is standard, and eating something with average amounts of sodium tastes bland. You can easily test this out by committing to a month or so without going out to eat and limiting the sodium intake of items you buy from the grocery store. At the end of that month, go to your favorite fast-food restaurant and order your usual. You’ll likely find that the taste of salt is overwhelming.

Reducing sodium takes effort but has many benefits, including reducing blood pressure and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. The first and most obvious way to reduce our sodium intake is to get a better handle on what we eat at our favorite restaurants and what we buy at the grocery store. Fortunately, nutrition labels give us a great deal of information. When it comes to prepared foods, even canned or bottled “healthy” foods, check out the nutrition label and ensure that it is relatively low in sodium. Similarly, cold cuts and other deli items may contain a great deal of sodium even if they are high in protein and relatively low in calories. Bear in mind that some extremely healthy foods naturally contain sodium, which is perfectly fine. Just try to reduce the amount of processed food you buy.

Similarly, when visiting a restaurant, or fast-food outlet, understand how much sodium you consume. Many dishes you order may also contain significant saturated fats and sugar, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease. But how do you know how much sodium or fat you consume at a restaurant? If the restaurant does not publish a nutritional overview of all their foods, we suggest downloading one of the many food tracking apps available – free or paid – that can at least estimate the amount of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar that you are consuming. You can even use the app to plan a meal before going to the restaurant.

Portion sizes are also a significant concern. A relatively low sodium dish for a restaurant may end up bad for you simply because you’ve eaten too much of it. Remember that a serving of protein, for example, is about the size of a deck of cards. Many of us eat far more than that at each sitting. Sadly, portion sizes have become a draw of many restaurants at the expense of our health.

What’s the Answer?

Ultimately, a reduction in sodium intake is just one of the many changes we collectively have to make to improve the health of our hearts. Sugar and saturated fats are similarly problematic, and often restaurant and processed foods contain unacceptable amounts of these big three heart disease-promoting foods. Improving our diet and exercise is essential in changing the tide, reducing sodium intake, and improving heart health. But it will take a societal shift to convince food manufacturers and restaurants that sodium does not need to be a big part of their dishes. Further, home cooking is not only a great way to relax and eliminate some stress, but it can be a way to bring the family together and improve everyone’s heart health while enjoying a delicious meal.

Just remember, sodium itself is not the problem. How we consume sodium and how it is integrated into the foods we buy makes it so problematic. With vigilance and understanding of how sodium is added to our foods, you can reduce it dramatically and potentially improve your heart health within days or weeks of making the change.

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