Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life. It’s regulated by your kidneys, and it helps control your body’s fluid balance. Salt is made up of sodium and chloride and it’s the sodium in salt that can raise your blood pressure. Australians currently eat around 10 grams of salt a day – our body needs less than 1 gram to survive. To reduce the risk of heart disease it is recommended to eat no more than 4g salt a day (1600mg sodium). That equals about 1 teaspoon a day.1
Effects of Excess Salt on your Heart
When there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, which increases the total amount of blood inside them. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. To cope with the extra strain, the tiny muscles in the artery walls become thicker – this only makes the space inside the arteries smaller and raises your blood pressure even higher. Over time, high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of fatty plaque that can block blood flow which raises the risk of a heart attack and stroke. The added pressure tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body. The extra water in your body can also lead to bloating and weight gain.2
High blood pressure (hypertension) is known as the ‘silent killer’ because its symptoms are not always obvious. It refers to when the higher figure (systolic) is above 140mmHg, or the lower figure (diastolic) is higher than 90mmHg, or both. It’s one of the major risk factors for heart disease and the number one killer worldwide. In 2018, just over one in five Australians had a measured high blood pressure reading (140/90 mmHg).3 One way to cut back is to skip the table salt. However, about 80% of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged, processed foods. Because our diets are generally so high in salt, everybody – even those with normal blood pressure – can benefit from reducing salt intake. Lowering your salt intake will not only have a positive effect on your heart but it can also reduce your risk of stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and even headaches.
Tips for cutting back on sodium
With less salt, you can taste your food’s natural flavour, especially when you use cooking techniques and flavourful ingredients to enhance it. Over time, your taste buds can adjust to liking less salt. Studies show that when people follow a lower-sodium diet, they start to prefer it, and that the foods they used to enjoy taste too salty. Below are some useful tips for reducing salt in your diet.4
- Choose packaged and prepared foods carefully. Compare labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium (per serving) you can find in your store. You might be surprised that different brands of the same food can have different sodium levels.
- Select condiments with care. For example, bottled salad dressings, dips, ketchup, jarred salsas, capers, mustard, pickles, olives and relish can be sky-high in sodium. One tablespoon of soy sauce has about 1,000mg of sodium. Look for a reduced or lower-sodium version.
- Opt for canned vegetables and cooking sauces labelled ‘no salt added’. When they’re added to a casserole, soup or other mixed dish, there are so many other ingredients involved that you won’t miss the salt.
When preparing food:
- Use onions, garlic, herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars in place of some or all of the salt to add flavour.
- Drain and rinse canned beans (like chickpeas, kidney beans) and vegetables. You’ll cut the sodium by up to 40 percent.
- Combine lower-sodium versions of food with regular versions. If you don’t like the taste of lower-sodium foods right now, try combining them in equal parts with a regular version of the same food. You’ll get less salt and probably won’t notice much difference in taste. This works especially well for broths, soups and tomato-based pasta sauces.
- Cook pasta, rice and hot cereal without salt. You’re likely going to add other flavourful ingredients, so you won’t miss the salt.
- Cook by grilling, roasting and sautéing to bring out natural flavours. This will reduce the need to add salt.
- Incorporate foods with potassium like sweet potatoes, potatoes, greens, tomatoes and lower-sodium tomato sauce, white beans, kidney beans, non-fat yogurt, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe. Potassium helps counter the effects of sodium and may help lower your blood pressure.
- Tell them how you like it. Ask for your dish to be made without extra salt.
- Taste your food before adding salt. If you think it needs a boost of flavour, add freshly ground black pepper or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime and test it again before adding salt. Lemon and pepper are especially good on fish, chicken and vegetables.
- Watch out for these food words: pickled, brined, barbecued, cured, smoked, broth, au jus, soy sauce, miso or teriyaki sauce. These tend to be high in sodium. Foods that are steamed, baked, grilled, poached or roasted may have less sodium.
- Control portion sizes. When you cut calories, you usually cut the sodium too. Ask if smaller portions are available, share the meal with a friend or ask for a to-go box when you order and place half the meal in the box to eat later.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
- Nutrition Australia. Salt and Hypertension. Retrieved from: http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/frequently-asked-questions/salt-and-hypertension.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Health Survey: First Results, 2017-18.
- SA Health. Eat Less Salt. Retrieved from: https://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/public+content/sa+health+internet/healthy+living/healthy+eating/healthy+eating+tips/eat+less+salt.