Sodium. Essential for life. But too much is a recipe for a health crisis. Sodium plays a key role in hydration during high-intensity exercise and hot, humid conditions. For the rest of the day when you aren’t working out, and especially if you don’t exercise much, it’s time to dive into a world of flavor beyond salt.
I want to be very clear that the idea that salt or any food or ingredient is the big bad reason our health suffers is flawed. Salt, sugar, fat, carbohydrates, bread, bacon, soda– what is the nutritional villain of the day? Anything in excess is bad for you, and even the most indulgent foods can be enjoyed some of the time. If you eat out a lot or eat a lot of packaged foods, you may be getting to much sodium. If you are frequently refilling your salt shaker at home, you may be eating too much salt.
I recommend ‘strategic salt’ in the diet. Use it in small amounts where it will help you get more good stuff that you need, and use it when your health requires it (see “A note for athletes” below).
It’s time to diversify your palate. I buy small containers of a wide array of herbs and spices so they are fresh when I need them, and I have a LOT of these flavor boosters in my pantry. I’m better at keeping fresh herbs around during the summer, but some can be grown year-round. When cooking:
- If you are not sure what to add, smell a few things, close your eyes, and imagine what it might taste like in the dish.
- Encourage kids to add a new spice or herb to a dish, or use paprika or oregano or thyme to personalize their own plates.
- Instead of folding cheese into a dish, sprinkle a smaller amount on top for visual appeal and a more subtle cheesy flavor.
What about snack foods? Sometimes we just crave salt, especially if we have not learned to enjoy other flavors yet. So again with the nudging:
- Mix salted popcorn with unsalted dried fruits or nuts. These additions also add phyto(plant)nutrients, healthy fats, and more fiber, so help you to feel satisfied sooner and boost nutrition. Eventually try unsalted popcorn with fun additions.
- Take a smaller portion of chips or salty crackers and enjoy with guacamole (try straight smashed avocado with a little lime juice, or maybe add a little diced onion, hot pepper, or tomato).
- A little salt from hummus is also bringing healthful chickpeas to your diet. This is one example ‘strategic salt’. Then dip fresh veggies in hummus to cut the overall proportion of sodium in your snack.
- Simply look for lower salt snack foods– pretzels tend to be higher, some crackers are quite low. Still watch your portions, and remember that a simple apple is also delicious!
- Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, but also high in salt (strategic salt!) and saturated fat, so balance out small portions with pears or berries instead of salty crackers.
- Mix salsa with nonfat plain yogurt for a creamy dip for veggies.
A note for athletes: If you are a salty sweater or will be exercising in hot, humid conditions, a small salty snack with your water before you work out is a good idea. If you’ll work out for more than an hour, a sports drink will deliver the water, sodium, and carbohydrates you need to stay hydrated.