Salt, fat and carbs: They're the most popular ingredients in our food supply. The human body requires all three for good health, yet there are so many misconceptions about them.
March 20-26, 2017, is World Salt Awareness Week, with health advocates reminding people that salt raises blood pressure, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks. Yet both children and adults in the U.S. eat more sodium than recommended, the Center for Science in the Public Interest notes.
Making some small changes in your food choices can often make a big impact on your health. It's easy when you know the facts.
When it comes to salt, a little goes a long way. The human body cannot survive without salt; it supports normal functioning of muscles to contract and relax, the transmission of normal signaling for the brain and nervous system, and overall salt and water balance.
Only around 2,300 milligrams of sodium — a teaspoon of salt — is needed to support good health for people without risk factors for sodium-related cardiovascular illness. A 1,500 milligrams daily intake is recommended for people at-risk, including those age 51 and older, or who have high-blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease, and African-American people of all ages.
Yet, the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium every day, or almost 50 percent more than recommended. Most people don't even realize how much they are consuming.
1. Nearly 80 percent of the sodium in food comes from processed and packaged foods; the salt shaker contributes less than 10 percent of salt consumed daily.
2. Condiments like soy sauce and ketchup are a major source of dietary sodium. Sodium is "hidden" in foods like bread, shrimp, and swiss chard.
There's a lot of confusion about how much, and what type of fat to eat for good health. When it comes to fat, less is not always better. The type of fat consumed along with the total daily amount are both key factors for good health.
3. Choose liquid fats over solid fats most of the time. At room temperature, healthier unsaturated fats are liquid (like olive, safflower, and corn oil) and saturated are solid (butter, coconut oil).
4. The total amount of calories from dietary fat matters. Healthy fats have the same calories as unhealthy fats, and a healthy guideline is 25 percent to 35 percent of daily calories.
5. Fat is a very satisfying nutrient and promotes extended fullness. Including some fat at each meal can support healthy and effective weight loss.
Carbohydrates are the preferred and primary source of body fuel. All foods can be converted to a simple sugar to be used by all body cells. But the dietary choices of carbohydrates vary widely. Carbs are major carriers of fat (chips) and added sugars (cookies, cakes, candy), and should not be confused with smart carbohydrates found in nature.
6. Choose fiber-rich carbohydrates. Focus on fruits and vegetables — rich in fiber and water —as the primary source of dietary carbohydrates. Limit intake of starchy-carbs (like bread, rice, pasta, cereals).
7. Fiber helps with fullness, so limit processed carbohydrates (stripped of fiber) to support portion control.
Avoid the "good" and "bad" food mentality for salt, fat, and carbs. If you make smart choices most of the time, you can freely include some treat foods. For healthy eaters, there are no bad foods, just bad portions.
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D, is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.
This story was originally published in January 2015.