My lightbulb moment: how much sodium is in my food?

Do you know how much sodium you're eating every day?

Do you know how much sodium you're eating every day?

If you’ve been keeping up with my “101 in 1001” challenge, you know that monitoring my blood pressure is one of my 101 tasks. With a multi-generational family history of hypertension and borderline personal BP numbers, this is an important health issue for me.

I recently found out about the “DASH diet”, which encourages lower consumption of sodium (under 2300mg/day) and higher consumption of potassium (4700mg/day), magnesium (500 mg/day) and calcium (1250 mg/day). The three latter minerals are suspected to counteract the negative effects of excess sodium. Since the DASH diet can lower blood pressure in most people, it seems fair I’d give it a try.

Lightbulb momentI rarely use salt when I cook at home, so I’ve never considered sodium the culprit for my elevated blood pressure. But after reading about the DASH diet, I decided to take a closer look at the sodium levels of the foods we have around the house. That’s when my jaw dropped. I call it my lightbulb moment.

Unless you cook every single meal from scratch, there’s added sodium in everything you buy at the grocery store. The only variance is HOW MUCH sodium is in. If you’re busy like me and use a number of ready-made foods, from breakfast cereal, to pasta sauce, to already-cooked beans and processed meats, you’re in for a surprise.

The worst part of my discovery is, what looks and sounds healthy may actually contain a lot of sodium. For example one serving (90 calories) of wheat flakes (healthy fiber, right?) contain over 200 mg of sodium. And you know you’ll eat more than one serving for breakfast. A better alternative? Shredded wheat, which has almost no sodium. I often use beans as a source of protein but knowing that a single serving contains up to 400 mg of sodium (20% of the daily value), I’ve decided to switch to “no salt added” versions.

I recently bought turkey breast slices at Fresh & Easy but they were a little too salty to my taste, so I checked the label. The meat has over 600mg of sodium for a 50 calories serving. The word sodium is actually mentioned 6 times in the ingredient list – you’ve got to be kidding me! This package just made a round trip – it’s out of my fridge and back to the store.

Fresh & Easy sliced turkey breast is very high in sodium

Fresh & Easy sliced turkey breast is very high in sodium

Even the soy hot dogs I give my kids as an alternative to the poorly nutritious regular dogs contain a lot of sodium. Do I dare mentioning the fried chicken strips, or the ketchup they eat them with? Bread and bagels were a surprise too, but store-bought cookies and cakes have shocking amounts of sodium in them. That’s because salt happens to enhances all other tastes, including sweetness. Go figure.

The thing is, most foods don’t seem to contain that much sodium. But when you add up all of the sodium you’ve eaten in one day, you’ll probably get over the recommended 2300mg for adults, and 1800mg for kids. Most kids love the taste of salt but I think as parents, we can do them a favor and watch what we put on their plates, whether it is sodium, fat, or sugar.

So where does this discovery about my own diet lead me to? I want to call it a major lifestyle change, for myself and for my kids. Until now I read nutrition labels for fiber, sugar, fat and protein contents, but I need to add sodium to the checklist, as well as potassium and magnesium. I realize I also need to cook from scratch more and the challenge will be to find meals that my whole family enjoys eating. Cooking family meals and desserts are two other items on my “101 in 1001” list, so keeping my blood pressure in check will help me get these two tasks accomplished. Who knew?

Have you ever looked closely at what’s in your fridge, freezer and pantry? Would you make any changes if you saw something you weren’t aware of?

Additional resources:
The DASH diet
Sodium content of most foods (USDA reference)
Nutrition labels for all foods, including store brands and restaurants (very cool site)

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2 responses to “My lightbulb moment: how much sodium is in my food?

  1. There are MANY good reasons to leave processed foods out of your diet…but lowering sodium and fat are not among them, as there is little reason to do so, & good reasons not to. The best available science on the matter does NOT tie salt to high blood pressure, and the whole low fat is good for you myth has been thoroughly busted, as well. If you want short articles, and don’t mind that he sells stuff, is a good place to start reading. If you want footnoted research papers, and no sales (except a cookbook), is the place to read. Or lots of other traditional foods blogs, like

    • I agree with you that some people can eat tons of sodium daily and never get high blood pressure. But for someone like me who’s trying to be the odds of the genetic roulette, diet changes are worth a try. To lower blood pressure through diet, you need to lower sodium intake, as well as increase potassium, magnesium and calcium intake. I know I don’t get enough of these three and probably too much of the first, so it’s a place to start. It won’t hurt to eat a couple of bananas every day either. Even if this doesn’t work, at least my diet will be better than what it was.

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