x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Is your daily diet really worth its salt?

There are many ways to cut back on sodium in your diet; reducing the amount of salt you put on your chips is just one

We have all heard about the importance of reducing salt consumption as part of a healthy diet. So if you have been avoiding the saltshaker in an attempt to cut back, you may be surprised to learn that you may still be consuming too much salt. This is because up to three quarters of salt consumed by people in developed countries comes not from the saltshaker itself, but from packaged foods and meals eaten out. It is therefore not surprising that 85 per cent of men and more than 60 per cent of women in countries such as Canada and the UK consume too much salt on a daily basis. While statistics are not available for the UAE, the chances are if you eat some packaged foods, enjoy dining out or grabbing takeaway, your salt intake is above recommended limits.

Historically used for food preservation, salt continues to be used today as a preservative and flavour enhancer in many packaged and prepared foods. Salt is mostly sodium, a nutrient needed by the body in small amounts to maintain a healthy fluid balance, and regulate nerve impulses and muscle contraction. While only small amounts of sodium are needed by the body to function properly, most of us consume excess amounts leading to high blood pressure - a major contributor to strokes, heart disease and kidney disease.

One study published this year in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that if American adults reduced their sodium intake to levels recommended by most health agencies, there would be far fewer cases of high blood pressure in that country, saving billions of dollars in health care costs annually. So how much salt do we need? And how much is too much? Well, most recommendations, including Health Canada and the Food Standards Agency in the UK suggest getting no more than six grams of salt, or 2,300 mg of sodium per day for healthy adults. This is equivalent to one teaspoon of table salt from all sources - including salt you add at the table, and salt contained in packaged foods.

A sprinkle here, a dash there ? sodium intake can quickly add up, although most of the sodium we eat on a daily basis is already in the food we buy. Common high sodium culprits include fast food, and many convenience foods such as canned soup, frozen pizza, sauces, condiments and dressings. Even in small amounts some of these products have enough sodium to nearly meet your daily limit. Take soy sauce for example; one tablespoon has more than 1,000mg of sodium - that's almost half of your daily limit.

In the UAE, you don't have to look too far to find foods that will quickly push your sodium intake over the recommended amount. A mere 10 olives pack a staggering 400mg of sodium, while a handful of seasoned nuts can have as much as 500mg of sodium. On the other hand, a shawarma can have upwards of 1,000mg of sodium per serving. Despite its rampant use in many packaged foods, cutting back on your daily sodium intake is easier than you think. A little know-how can go a long way toward reducing your sodium intake. The most effective way to cut sodium intake begins at the grocery store. When it comes to packaged goods - a little label sleuthing is necessary.

Products that are considered low in salt have less than 0.3 grams of salt, or 140mg of sodium per serving. As a general rule of thumb, choose products that have less than 1.5 grams of salt, or 500mg of sodium per serving to help to keep your daily sodium intake in check. Aside from reading the nutrient label, you can also read the ingredient list to identify hidden sources of sodium. Products that tend to contain high amounts of sodium often contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and sodium benzoate. Contrary to popular belief, sea salt, although less refined than table salt, is mostly sodium and should also be used sparingly.

In the kitchen, there are obvious ways to reduce intake; be more cautious with the saltshaker, and season food with herbs, spices and lemon to add flavour without added salt. When it comes to canned food, such as beans, always rinse the contents before consuming them to remove excess sodium added during the packaging process. If you are making an effort to cut back on your sodium intake but find that food just doesn't taste as good without it, give it time. Our taste buds get used to food flavoured with a lot of salt and anything less will tend to taste dull at first. Within a few weeks you will get accustomed to having less salt and food will taste just as good.