Stuff I’ve Learned About Sodium

I’ve had a few doctor visits lately — two for an injured arm (side effect of working out without a brain) and a regular-for-me eye specialist trip — and in each of the three, my blood pressure has come back a bit high. Just a bit. Could be nothing — I’d gained a few pounds lately (from eating garbage and the arm not letting me exercise properly), I was in pain, I was stressed out, all that stuff. I’ll get it checked again sometime soon under no stress at my mom’s house or a Walgreen’s or something, and it might be right back to normal, right where it should be and has (until about a month ago) always been.

But I decided to treat it like it’s something, mostly because I’d like to avoid medication and much more sweeping and permanent changes going forward. The only real recommendation for someone like me — mildly high BP, relatively young, not overweight, no family history — is to cut back on the sodium intake a bit. So I’ve been trying. And in this age, in this country, it’s a freakin’ hard thing to do. There’s no escaping salt. Sodium — a lot more of it than you’d likely ever imagine — is everywhere.

Here are some things I’ve learned about sodium, and the avoidance thereof:

  1. People eat a ton of it. Duh, right? But it’s more than you think. The US recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2,400 mg; the Centers for Disease Control, which has been a bit nuts about this in recent years, says 2,300. People at risk (like me, now, in theory) are urged to keep it under 1,500 or 2,000, depending on who you talk to. The average American consumes nearly 3,500 mg a day. If you’ve eaten at a restaurant today — any restaurant, fast food, greasy spoon, fine dining, whatever —  there’s a pretty decent chance you passed 2,000 in that meal alone.
  2. But that’s probably okay, for most people. They’d have preferred not to admit it, but CDC’s most recent study found no solid evidence that the average person would benefit at all from reducing her sodium intake from around the average down to below 2,300 mg. No doubt we all (or almost all) get a lot more of it than we need, and a high-sodium diet isn’t good for anybody, per se, but if your blood pressure’s normal and things are otherwise good, there’s not a lot of reason to be concerned about it.
  3. Sodium is sneaky. Easy enough to stay away from soy sauce or anything soaked in brine (a pickle or a cup of olives alone will both get you to around 1,200), and maybe you’d assume that most frozen or fast food meals are packed with the stuff (you’d be right), but that’s about as far as intuition will get you. Most chips and crackers that taste salty aren’t that bad, sodium-wise, if you stick around the serving size; pretzels, generally lower in calories and fat, tend to have more than double the sodium per ounce. (These have quickly become my favorite snack.) There’s loads of sodium in packaged flour tortillas; not so much in whole grain bread; approximately a metric ton and a half in whole grain bagels or hamburger buns. White rice generally has almost no sodium, but Chipotle’s white rice has a robust 200 mg.
    There’s no system, and it can’t really be learned; it’s just the sort of thing, I’m finding, where you have to check, every time.
  4. Prepared “healthy” foods are the devil. The thing is that salt has no calories and is cheap and readily available. So, I’m convinced, people who make low-calorie foods for restaurants or grocery shelves view it as the all-purpose replacement flavor for all the flavors they have to take out of the food because they, those flavors being supplanted, carry too many calories. No Lean Cuisine I’ve ever seen has had enough calories to count as a meal, yet they all seem to have 500 mg or more of sodium. Kraft’s ranch dressing has 300 mg per serving, while its watered-down fat-free variety has 330. An “All-American Flame-Grilled” meatless Boca Burger patty has 380 mg, more than four times what an original ground-beef Bubba Burger has (of course, the Boca is going to be better for you in almost every other way).
    If low sodium is going to be a part of your healthy lifestyle, fresh vegetables, fruit, unsalted nuts and meat you cook yourself is pretty much the only way to go. As someone who still has a bit of a panic when he has to fire up the burner to scramble a couple eggs for his kids every morning, this is going to be the hardest thing to accept. I’m not there yet, and may never be there.
  5. You can get more than 2,000 mg of sodium — my doctor’s recommendation for me for a whole day — from the following harmless-enough-sounding restaurant orders:
    Lasagna Primavera with grilled chicken from The Olive Garden (on their “Lighter Italian Fare” menu at 530 calories)
    – A Chipotle burrito bowl with chicken, brown rice, black beans, cheese, the tomato and corn salsas, guacamole and romaine lettuce (I tried to be as “good” as I could, for fast food Mexican. No Tortilla! Brown rice, black beans and so forth!)
    – A Potbelly’s turkey breast sandwich on multigrain wheat bread with swiss cheese and hot peppers, plus Baked Lay’s (a reasonable-for-fast-food 610 calories; 2023 migs of salty stuff).
    Almost literally any full entree or appetizer at Applebee’s, including at least four of the salads. Hell, several entrees have more than 5,000 mg, and two of the desserts at Applebee’s have more than 900.

So there’s a moral here, and I think that moral is: don’t develop high blood pressure. Or: don’t ever go out to eat, ever. Or: if you have to do one or both of those things, don’t live in the United States.

Gonna be fun!

6 thoughts on “Stuff I’ve Learned About Sodium

  1. I had a relative who had a condition where salt triggered the most blinding headaches, vision loss, etc… It was awful. So she had to learn to eat a super low-sodium diet. I tried it (solidarity and all that) and it was TOUGH. I was never the type who added salt to anything, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard, but as you outlined, you have to look at everything you eat – and eating out? Welcome to salads with lemon and olive oil. (you have a FEW more options, but not many)

    The good thing I took away from it all – pay attention to what you consume. IT’s something we don’t always do, especially when eating out or choosing “healthy” items, and we end up eating things that aren’t as good for us as we might think.

    Hope your attempts on cutting back work out well for your BP – good you are working on it now!

    • Oh, man, that sounds awful. Good of you to try it.

      The thing is, and maybe I should’ve mentioned this — I love salt. I’d take the probably pre-salted movie theater popcorn slathered with salty fake-butter topping and then dump salt over it. I haven’t been missing it yet (inasmuch as I’m actually succeeding in avoiding it, which, who knows), but I’m guessing it’ll get harder.

      Thanks for the encouragement! Totally agree — I think “pay attention to what you consume” is the biggest thing for me, overall. I go through periods where I’m great at that, and I’m in shape and happy and healthy, and then other periods where I just stop caring, and I’m 20 pounds heavier or stuff like this happens. Back on the upswing now and working on staying there. 🙂

  2. So once upon a time a friend of mine, knowing my love of 1950s art and ads and so on, picked up a few vintage cookbooks for me at a garage sale. The recipes in the one labeled “low fat” all contained MSG. Every single one.

    I was horrified for a time until I took an intro chem course in university, and discovered MSG is just a salt. It’s a salt that a few people have a reaction to (hence all the “MSG shakes” and the freakouts and the removal from the market) but it’s a salt, hence a flavour enhancer, and at the time there was no concern over health and safety about it, and I had really had no idea. Using an acronym and talking about it only in “No MSG here!” terms really just does not give a kid any context about this thing.

    It was the first time I’d really considered what salt actually does. I asked a lot of questions in that class and the prof actually brought me a tiny jar of MSG from Chinatown, and explained all the properties and how problems only stemmed from large amounts of it and told me to try it.

    So I did. I took this tiny jar home and made something and put a little sprinkle of MSG in it and it was fantastic. It tasted great. And then I got it.

    And it’s weird, because once you realize how much salt is in things that you eat, you realize what they must actually taste like, and how your palate is so accustomed to salt salt salt and more salt. It’s like when your sugar tolerance starts to go down and you realize why people at Starbucks have such long orders because they only want one pump of vanilla instead of four or something.

    This is a long-winded comment, but anyway, I’m glad you’re talking about this, because it doesn’t seem to be talked about enough (except for, like you said, the magic number of milligrams you’re supposed to get in a day and the scary amounts we actually get regularly). I didn’t even know that about Chipotle bowls. Of course, because everything is supposed to be low fat now, artificial sweeteners and salt are the thing. Man, eating is hard!

    • Ha, that’s a cool story. Yeah, the MSG thing has always been weird to me. I’ve seen it almost exclusively at Chinese restaurants, and always wondered how much of that reaction to it was, like, “damned Orentuls are tryna’ poison us!” or something. 🙂

      Thanks…yeah, it’s something I honestly hadn’t thought about much at all until this happened. It’s like, everybody has this vague idea that too much salt is probably a bad thing, but then to the extent we think about what we’re eating at all, the sugar and fat and whatnot (and their effects) are so much easier to notice and identify that we just forget to care at all about those other sorts of things.

  3. So glad you’re staying on top of your health needs. As I’m sure you know, whole, natural foods provide all the sodium we need – but even that can go too far, if you’re prone to low blood pressure, as I am. (How ’bout we trade diets for a while? ;))

    As a side note, I’ve heard that the HBP standards keep lowering, so many people are freaked out and put on meds needlessly. My favorite tip: Food rules. We should eat it.

    • Ha…I wonder how long I’d last on that trade. Three days seems like a reachable goal, provided I can go relatively light on beans. 🙂

      But, yeah…your influence in the fresh-vegetables-and-nuts bit could’ve been more obvious, but it was there. 🙂 My problem isn’t so much a lack of willingness to eat that way, it’s that I’ve never had any interest in preparing food, or going out specifically to buy food for later, or — dear lord! — *planning* meals. I love to eat, but that statement illustrates precisely where my interest in food both begins and ends. That’s the biggest thing I need to work on, I think, for this reason and a bunch of others. Starting to, a bit.

      Very intrigued by your side note. I’d definitely think long and hard before I went the medication route…thankfully a long way from that, or at least it seems that way. Love the tip: simple, straightforward, definitely true. 🙂

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