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Hold the salt, please!

“Statistically, 90 per cent of people will develop high blood pressure at some point in their lifetime,” says Jennifer Sygo, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition for Cleveland Clinic Canada. “The question is when will that happen and the goal is to delay it for as long as possible.”

It’s no secret that high blood pressure, or hypertension, can be a leading contributor to heart disease and stroke, as well as contributing to other health issues. Along with maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and stopping smoking, doctors and nutritionists recommend reducing the intake of dietary sodium, or salt, as a way to help reduce the risk of hypertension.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, more than 85 per cent of men and 60-80 per cent of women had sodium intakes exceeding the tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), set by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Moreover, 77 per cent of children aged one to three and 93 per cent of children aged four to eight exceed the UL for sodium. Actual sodium consumption may be even higher than this survey shows since the self-reported dietary recall survey methods tend to underestimate intake.

Cutting back isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Only a fraction of our sodium intake comes from the voluntary addition of salt at the dinner table, says Sygo. And not only do we need some salt in our diet, but it also plays a role in preserving food, as well as adding flavour and palatability.

Sygo suggests that those of us with a “salt addiction” need to take control of it, and that by shopping and cooking wisely, we can significantly cut our sodium intake and decrease the risk of developing hypertension until well into old age.

Six tips to reduce your salt intake

The average person’s diet should contain no more than 1500 mg of sodium per day. Here are some tips to help you reduce your salt craving:

1. Remove the salt shaker from the table and the kitchen. While salting meals may only contribute about seven per cent of our dietary salt intake, it’s still a practice to avoid. Replacing table salt with salt alternatives may be an option to consider, but Sygo notes that most of these still have a sodium base. Sea salt, garlic salt, onion salt, celery salt, MSG, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, Half Salt, and so on all count as salt.

2. Use less salt in cooking. Make your potatoes, pastas and rice salt-free and reduce or eliminate salt in your recipes. You’ll be surprised how soon you’ll get used to the foods’ natural flavours, instead of just the salty taste.

3. Read labels carefully when shopping. If you are buying prepared and/or frozen foods, take the time to read the labels. Compare the nutritional ingredients with other similar products and choose the one with the least amount of sodium.

4. Shop around the outside of the grocery store. This is the area where most stores stock their fresh or unprocessed foods. Shop for and eat these foods instead of processed foods.

5. Choose restaurants that will prepare food without salt. In particular, stay away from the fast-food outlets whose main flavour ingredient is often salt.

6. Choose non-salty snacks. Avoid potato chips and bring out the hot-air popcorn maker instead.

However, if you are an athlete or are involved in strenuous activity, waive the salt restriction – those are the people who do need some salt in their diets. Athletes, or those involved in strenuous activity, will lose a great deal of salt through perspiration. In these cases, the lack of sodium can become a limiting factor in performance, Sygo warns, by causing muscle cramping or other problems.


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