The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that healthy adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. This would be about one teaspoon of salt. (Adults with hypertension and prehypertension are encouraged to further reduce their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.) On average, though, our intake is closer to 3,400 mg per day. We know eating too much sodium can raise blood pressure. Long-term high blood pressure can lead to heart disease and other health issues like stroke, kidney disease, and vision loss. Eating less sodium can help lower blood pressure, which can help reduce the risks of developing these serious medical conditions. But where is all of this sodium coming from, and how do we lower our intake? Despite what many think, overuse of the saltshaker is not the main cause of too much sodium in our diets. In fact, only about 11% of our sodium intake comes from adding salt to food when cooking, while about 75% comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods. According to the CDC, almost half comes specifically from the following foods:
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Mixed meat dishes (like beef stew, chili, and meat loaf)
- Mixed pasta dishes (like lasagna, pasta salad, and spaghetti with meat sauce)
- Sandwiches (like hamburgers and submarine sandwiches)
- Savory snacks (like chips, crackers, popcorn, and pretzels)
Easy Tips for Reducing Sodium Consumption
- Read the Nutrition Facts Label. Packaged foods and beverages can contain high levels of sodium, regardless of whether they actually taste salty. That’s why it is important to use the Nutrition Facts Label to check how much sodium is in foods and beverages. Try to compare the sodium amounts in different brands and choose those lower in sodium. Also, make sure to pay attention to serving sizes. If a package contains two servings and you eat the whole package, you’re eating twice the amount of sodium listed on the label.
- Add flavor without adding sodium. Try using herbs, spices, and no-salt seasoning blends instead of salt to add flavor to your food. Also, try to limit packaged sauces, mixes, and “instant” products.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. In addition to their other important nutrients (like vitamins and dietary fiber), many fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium. For example, Swiss chard, bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes, and beet greens are all great sources. Sodium and potassium both affect blood pressure, and eating enough potassium can help lower blood pressure by balancing out some of the harmful effects excess sodium can have. Just remember: when buying frozen or canned vegetables, choose varieties with no salt added and that do not contain sauces or seasonings.
- Buy fresh. Choose fresh meat, poultry, and seafood, rather than processed varieties, and check the packages to see whether salt water or saline has been added.
- Rinse. Rinse sodium-containing canned foods such as beans, tuna, and vegetables before eating. This will remove some of the sodium.
- Consider condiments and snacks. Sodium in condiments can add up. Choose light or reduced sodium condiments, add oil and vinegar to salads rather than bottled dressings, and use a small amount of seasoning from flavoring packets instead of the entire packet. When snacking, choose low sodium or no-salt-added nuts, seeds, and snack products (or have carrots or celery sticks instead!).
- Make lower-sodium choices at restaurants. Ask that your meal be prepared without added salt. You can also request that sauces and salad dressings be served on the side so you can use less of them.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Top 10 Sources of Sodium. Updated February 29, 2016. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/salt/sources.htm
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get the Facts: Sodium and Dietary Guidelines. Published April 2016. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/Sodium_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sodium in Your Diet: Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce Your Intake. Updated June 2, 2016. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm315393.ht
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- Reduce Stress & Anxiety - Lifestyle stress activates our sympathetic nervous system. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline start pumping, causing our heart rate and blood pressure to increase, digestion to slow, and breathing to become thin and shallow. We breathe from the top of our chest, sometimes feeling short of breath and eventually fatigued. A few minutes of deep breathing that engages the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle at the top of your abdomen) can stimulate the vagus nerve, which can begin reversing the stress response and promoting a calm and peaceful feeling.
- Lower Blood Pressure - When stress levels are high, our systolic blood pressure increases which puts extra strain on our heart. We can do our heart a favor by spending a few minutes each day, particularly when we're under pressure, to use those deep, diaphragmatic breaths mentioned above to keep our stress response to a minimum. Studies have shown that reducing your respiration to fewer than 10 breaths per minute can lower blood pressure in just minutes!
- Improve Focus & Concentration - When breathing is shallow, oxygen flow to the body (and brain) is reduced. Taking deep breaths, fully expanding the lungs and fully exhaling, restores oxygen flow and enhances mental function. In addition, when distractions make it hard for us to concentrate, focusing on breathing for a few minutes brings us back to the present and can help bring our attention back to the tasks at hand.
- Relieve Headaches - Many headaches are either caused or exacerbated by muscular tension, which is usually triggered by stress. As mentioned above, when we breathe fully, we increase oxygen flow throughout the body. This promotes muscular relaxation and in some cases can halt a headache in it's tracks. Even if the pain has already set in, focusing on mental and physical relaxation has been shown to provide relief for many people.
- Improve Exercise Performance & Recovery - With better oxygen flow to our muscles, not only are they better able to relax at rest, but they are better able to perform on demand. This means that we have more energy and stamina to perform the exercises of our choice, and our bodies have the oxygen and nutrients needed to recover more rapidly and regain the energy expended for the rest of the day.
- Better Sleep - As our bodies prepare for rest, everything slows down. During sleep, our heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure decrease. This process is essential for long-term health. But stress can be disruptive to deep, restful sleep. Those stress hormones and their effects that we've been discussing, all counter our bodies efforts to turn down and turn off. By going to bed a few minutes earlier and performing some of the breathing exercises we're about to share, you can help your body to flush some of those pesky stress hormones and allow your body to slow down and recover from the day. You'll wake feeling more rested and energized, and your cardiovascular and nervous system will appreciate it too!
There are many breathing exercises and techniques out there. Rather than recommending a specific technique, we're going to offer a few general tips that you can use on your own, anywhere, and at any time:
- You can lie flat on your back, or find a comfortable place to sit. If you're in your office, you may not feel comfortable sprawling on the floor! That's okay, your office chair will do just as well. If you are seated, try to achieve a neutral posture, shoulders relaxed, chin lifted and chest open.
- Try placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. As you inhale, relax your belly and focus on expanding your lungs, feeling the expansion all the way to you abdomen. The hand on your belly should move more than the hand over your chest.
- Try to slow your breathing as much as is comfortable. The goal is not to make yourself dizzy! It may take time and practice, so work within your comfortable range.
- Concentrate on the sensation. Feel your lungs expand with each inhale, and relax with each exhale. Remember that inhaling and exhaling are equally important. If you find intrusive thoughts halt your deep breathing, or breaths become short and shallow again, just return your focus to the air entering and exiting your lungs. Practicing for just a few minutes at a time can make a difference in your mental and physical wellbeing!
Have a fit, focused and fabulous week. Keep Calm and find your Total Wellness!