Health Canada released a report yesterday, “Sodium Intake of Canadians in 2017.” Three guesses as to how well we’re doing. No surprise, it’s not pretty.
And, uh, 19-30 year-old men? We need to talk. 96% of you are over the recommended sodium intake levels! (Compared to 58% of Canadians overall.) Ease up on the pepperoni pizzas will you? Actually, I’m just kidding. It’s largely not your fault guys. Our food is loaded with sodium and your younger, generally more muscular bodies need more to eat.
Truly, from a public health perspective, the solution to this is lowering the sodium in the food supply, but you don’t have to wait until that happens. And you don’t have to eat like a saint! A few strategic swaps save you a lot of bang-for-your-buck, sodium-wise.
But first, a few sodium FAQ’s:
What’s the difference between salt and sodium?
- We sometimes use these words interchangeably, but of course they’re not the same. Table salt is sodium chloride, so sodium is a component of salt. But sodium is also found in other food additives, like monosodium glutamate (MSG) for example. At the end of the day, it’s excessive sodium that can impact your health, from whatever source, but I often say “salt” just to speak in plain language.
How do I know if I get too much?
- Estimating your sodium intake is easier than you might think. An occasional quick back-of-the-envelope estimate is enough to give you a ballpark idea. Food packages report it, of course, and you can find listings for most non-packaged food with a Google search. Just make sure to adjust the portion size to match what you eat.
- We don’t need more than the “adequate intake” — 1500mg for adults up to age 50, 1300mg for 51-70 and 1200mg for 70+.
- Experts disagree on how bad it is to be a bit above 1500mg, but they generally agree that if you’re consistently getting more than 2300mg a day, your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack and more goes up. (Hypertension Canada recommends 2000mg.) The precise number isn’t really important, as long as you’re in there somewhere.
Can you get too little sodium?
- We actually need sodium! But much less than most of us get. Experts argue about exactly how low is too low, and while it’s not common, I’ve certainly seen people well below that “adequate intake” level, especially among older heart patients trying really, really hard to avoid all sodium sources. It’s not necessary to be that strict, and it can negatively impact your enjoyment and possibly nutrition and health.
Are you kidding? I’m not going to calculate this every day!
- I wouldn’t either! But I do peek at nutrition information in restaurants and on packaged food, and use the rule of thumb of about 500mg per meal. If I eat something much higher than that, I’ll make an effort to limit sodium the rest of the day.
7 Summer Salt Swaps
All that being said, most of us get too much sodium (58%, according to the 2017 report). These 7 easy swaps can help you reduce sodium and still enjoy summer:
- Sandwich –> pasta salad (or another grain/starch that doesn’t need salt) — Believe it or not, the number one food category contributing to Canadians’ sodium intake is bakery products, from bread to muffins, cookies, desserts, crackers, and granola bars. Each slice of bread has around 150mg of sodium, which isn’t bad, but if you’re like many Canadians and eating a couple of slices (or a bun) at most meals, that sodium can really add up. Can you swap the bread at one or two meals a day for a grain product cooked without salt? Some will disagree, but I’ve been cooking rice, pasta, quinoa, oats, etc without salt for years, and they taste fine. You’re usually combining them with something else flavourful anyhow.
- Ham –> tuna (or swap out any processed lunch meat, including deli turkey and chicken). Convenience meats are so… convenient! But if you’re having them more than once a week or so, you’re risk for colon cancer, heart disease, and diabetes goes up. And you can make perfectly good sandwiches without them! Find 6 more ideas for sandwiches without processed meat here.
- BBQ hot dog –> BBQ chicken thigh — If you want something easy to throw on the grill, you can’t beat hot dogs for price, convenience, and popularity. But yikes, that sodium. Pre-made burgers and smokies aren’t much better. Chicken thighs (or drumsticks or breasts) to the rescue! If you’re chickened out, how about a nice fillet of steelhead trout wrapped in foil? Mmmmm…
- Wheat Thins –> Low-Sodium Triscuits — If you’re putting a topping like cheese or hummus on top, you probably won’t even notice that these Triscuits are lower in sodium. Really for any salty snacks, if you can be closer to ~100mg sodium per serving vs 200-300mg you’re fine. Check the report (figure 2) and you’ll see that snack foods don’t even make the top five sources of sodium, but if you won’t miss it, skip it.
- Footlong sub –> 6-inch sub, with sides if that’s not enough for you. Road trips are a fact of life in summertime, so avoiding restaurants altogether isn’t realistic. But going for the smallest possible portion on your main entree can save you a lot of sodium. Pack some yogurt, nectarines, cherries, carrots, and/or nuts because I don’t want this advice to leave you hungry.
- Store-bought –> homemade salad dressing — this is true for most of what you make in your kitchen, assuming you just salt to taste, and be strategic with other ingredients that boost flavour, like lemon juice, red wine vinegar, roasted vegetables, etc. And it tastes better!
- Eat out –> Eat in — Saved the biggest sodium slasher for last. Even if you don’t cook 100% from scratch, you’ll likely come out ahead. (See Milestones vs bottled spaghetti sauce example below.)
A Lower-Sodium Summer Weekend Menu
Want to see these 7 swaps in action over a typical summer weekend? See the before and after sodium makeover below. I purposely left in some not-so-low-sodium foods, just to show you that you don’t have to be perfect! Really, if you cut back on the big ones: Bread and bread products, processed and restaurant food, there’s room for a bit of cheese, salt, or even the occasional chocolate chip cookie.
Note: The numbers on the left refer to the swaps above, and the italicized menu items are the sodium-reducing swaps.
Isn’t that neat? The differences from just a few key swaps are huge. You could go lower on the right for sure, but I wanted to show you that you don’t necessarily have to. You deserve to eat in a way that satisfies you too, so keep what you love and swap out the rest. You just might find you enjoy it more!
What are your favourite sodium-reducing swaps? Join the conversation on Facebook.