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How to unlearn a high-salt diet: 5 tips from a nutritionist

Eating less salt usually means eating more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables.

Public health recommendations for salt consumption are no more than 2300 mg (about 1 tsp) a day with an ideal limit set to 1500 mg/day. Most of us are consuming double that amount. That’s because salt is found in everything from pasta sauce to bread.

Now, the Food and Drug Administration wants to change that by implementing a widespread salt reduction initiative throughout the food industry. The plan, to work voluntarily with food companies and restaurants, will focus on reducing salt by 12% in the next two and half years. If successful, it could potentially make a huge impact on health and longevity for most Americans.

The new FDA recommendation will limit the salt amount in over 163 categories

The American Heart Association recently identified the six saltiest foods: bread and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and deli meats and burritos and tacos. Many of these foods top over 1/3 or more daily salt limits.

In addition to these foods, ultra-processed foods (think potato chips and white bread), soda, cheese, condiments, baby food and frozen or quick cook foods also top the list of salt bombs. Consumption of these foods can lead to a massive amount of daily salt intake. More than 70% of Americans salt consumption comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why the FDA is taking over two years to implement sodium restrictions

There’s an obvious reason why salt is so prevalent in the U.S. food industry: It makes food taste better. Additionally, salt may be a major craving for many individuals. The FDA's decision to implement the 12% reduction slowly, over the course of several years, is to allow individuals a less drastic change in their food choices. A recent Harvard study showed that reducing sodium (along with reductions in trans fat and lowering blood pressure) could result in preventing 94 million premature deaths over the next 25 years.

What does excess salt does to the body?

While some sodium in the diet is necessary for electrolyte balance and muscle health, too much salt translates to much more than just a risk for high blood pressure. A 2015 study showed that even in the absence of high blood pressure, excess salt can negatively impact blood vessels, kidneys, the heart and the brain. There are also numerous studies showing an increase in stroke and heart attack-related deaths associated with high-salt diets. Even more concerning perhaps is the amount of salt children are consuming. Data from the CDC show that almost 9 in 10 U.S. children eat more sodium than recommended and about 1 in 9 children have high blood pressure.

Steps you can take to reduce your sodium intake now

You don’t have to wait for the food industry to change, you can take control today by implementing small improvements in your diet.

1. Cook more.

Making more meals at home can translate to having more control over how much sodium is added to meals. It also means you are not eating out at restaurants and fast food as frequently.

2. Make at least 80% of your diet real food.

Author Michael Pollan defines food as something that comes from nature, is made from nature and will eventually rot. Eating more real food means you are consuming less manufactured calories found in ultra-processed (and often salt bomb) foods.

3. Know your sodium label lingo.

Many food companies have already made efforts to reduce sodium in their product lines.

Finding lower sodium bread, cheese and soups is now easier than ever. First, you need to understand sodium labels. Choosing low-sodium (indicates that there are no more than 140 mg per serving) or very low-sodium products (no more than 35 mg/serving) is the ideal first step. Reduced-sodium foods indicates there is 25% less sodium than the original version and light-sodium foods indicates a reduction of 50% of original. Be aware that foods labeled reduced-sodium and light-sodium may still be considered high-sodium foods. Additionally, a label may not just say “salt” or “sodium” in the ingredient list. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium citrate and sodium phosphate may all indicate added sodium.

4. Utilize more herbs and roots.

Using more herbs in place of salt can help to provide flavor and antioxidants. Consider adding turmeric to eggs, pepper and rosemary to roasted potatoes, or ginger to soups.

5. Choose healthier snacks.

Snacks are major culprits of added sodium. Consider unsalted whole-grain pretzels, apples with no-added salt peanut butter, salt-free nuts and seeds or fresh fruit and vegetables as better alternatives to salty snack foods.

How to unlearn a high-salt diet:

Reducing salt in your diet is similar to making other behavioral changes. The process will vary by person to person based on personal preferences, such as sleep habits, stress management and even hormones. It also involves making a habitual behavior less likely to happen. Since studies show that habits emerge through replication (doing the same thing every day) then unlearning a salt habit may make sense as well.

Making a conscious effort to reduce sodium by forming new habits (having berries over crackers or a handful of unsalted nuts over cheese) can be the first step toward forming new habits. If fueling better means feeling better, you are most likely to maintain the new habit.

Eating less salt may translate to eating more plants and unprocessed foods. If the FDA can achieve their 12% reduction goals over the course of the next few years, these replacements in our diet may be the greatest win to overall health.