Counting sodium, not calories
I said for years I would never count calories. I thought it was too much trouble to monitor those numbers all day long. But now I am counting, only it is milligrams of sodium, and I am seeing results.
I became aware of sodium content in food and its levels in prepared foods a few years ago and began limiting the amount I ate, but I still lived in happy ignorance much of the time. I used the same reasoning that people on cholesterol medicine use to justify eating fattening foods — my hypertension medicine makes it OK to eat too much sodium, I thought.
But last year I put myself on a strict low-sodium diet. I began to scrutinize food labels and calculate rough amounts of sodium based on portion sizes. My wife and I had previously switched to some low-sodium products, but I was still bad about others, especially snack food and certain foods that I thought were healthful, such as turkey sausage or vegetarian burgers.
Food that is good in most ways — low in fat, containing good fats, low in or lacking sugar or artificial sweeteners — can be loaded with sodium, sometimes enough to make it impossible to consume any sodium the rest of the day if you’re watching your numbers. And sodium lurks in high numbers in sweet foods, the last place you would expect to find it. If food is sold prepared, chances are high it’s overloaded with sodium.
Watching sodium levels led to limiting my portions. Reading the sodium amount makes me stop and consider whether a snack is worth the huge portion of my daily sodium intake I will receive in a few bites that do little to satisfy my hunger. Following a low-sodium diet requires more time preparing food, which I should have been doing anyway, and a great deal of time studying labels in stores. The recommended daily total for young, healthy people is 2,400 mg and for older people and those with hypertension is 1,500.
I occasionally buy a small bag of Baked Lay’s, but one little bag contains a large amount of sodium, and I carefully consider whether it’s worth ingesting so much sodium for so little satisfaction. One large hard pretzel contains more than 500 mg, but I get one-third my daily dose from one white-flour pretzel that provides no worthwhile nutrients or fiber, and I’m still hungry. I learned to enjoy salt-free peanuts, which satisfy my craving for fat (the good kind), and I put salt-free sunflower seeds on salads. I eat potatoes and corn on the cob without salt or butter. I often put hot sauce on potatoes, but I am careful about the amount because many hot sauces are loaded with sodium, and again I study many bottles to find something acceptable.
With corn chips I eat Mad Monk’s Salsa, which has the lowest sodium of any salsa, 40 mg in two tablespoons, whereas the next closest, Green Mountain Gringo, has 90 and most have about 250. I eat salt-free corn chips, although they’re not whole grain. I find Mad Monk’s only at Marc’s, but lately I have found only mild, which is too bland, so I add chopped fresh chiles. I used to buy chiles in cans, but after studying the cost, realizing canned are as expensive as fresh, and learning that canned chiles contain sodium, I began buying fresh chiles, and now I chop a couple chiles every few days and add them to many foods, including spaghetti, eggs, and of course mild salsa.
We buy Little Italy spaghetti sauce, made in Cleveland, which is far lower than the next closest in sodium amount. It contains 135 mg per half cup, whereas the next lowest is 360, then 450, then 500 and up. We started buying low-sodium chicken broth for recipes after learning that the broth we used for years contained about 900 mg per serving. So far I haven’t found low-sodium enchilada sauce, and soy sauce and tamari sauce are swimming in salt. Even the lowered-sodium tamari is quite high, with about 700 mg per serving.
Counting sodium requires just as much as discipline as counting calories, and it sometimes makes it impossible to find something to eat. But low-sodium alternatives are appearing in stores because food companies respond to customer desires if the customers make their desires known. Over the years we’ve seen reduced fat food, and lately I’m seeing labels bragging that food contains no high fructose corn syrup. I hope next to see vastly reduced amounts of sodium in processed food.