When I went out to lunch with an editor of mine back in the early 1980s, he had the habit of referring to table salt as "white death," as in, "Pass me some of that white death for my French fries."
I would laugh. Back then, of course, we were in our twenties (me in the early, he in the late) and we were not so much fatalistic, perhaps, as convinced that we were robust and athletic as to be impervious to the dietary constraints that lesser or older mortals had to accept. Or maybe we just assumed that regular alcohol consumption would purge our bodies of anything hazardous -- including the sodium in salt, which causes the body to retain water and thus increases blood volume, making the heart work harder to push it through the arteries and increasing the chance of heart disease and stroke.
Now that I'm in my fifties, though, I'm a bit less deluded, and considerably more conscious of a genetic heritage which probably predisposes me to hypertension. I don't want to follow the precedent of family members who rely on medication to control their blood pressure. That's why, in addition to exercising and meditating regularly, I bought an inexpensive home blood pressure monitor from Amazon.com (though I confess that I've been too busy to read the instructions and figure out how to use it).
I've also resolved to pay more attention to what I eat -- in particular to cutting back on the amount of sodium I consume. That part has become a bigger priority since I saw the new federal dietary recommendations, which call for those of us over 50 to limit sodium consumption to 1,500 milligrams a day or less.
As I discovered on my first sodium-conscious food shopping trip, though, that's a goal that's maddeningly difficult to try to meet. The average American consumes about 3,500 milligrams of sodium a day, and many go several times over the top limit of 2,300 milligrams for healthy people under 50. I always assumed, naively, that because I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, buy a lot of products with whole grains and vegetables and avoid table salt, even when a recipe calls for it, that I wouldn't have to worry much about sodium. No such luck.
That's because we lazy, time-challenged modern humans eat a lot of processed foods, into which manufacturers dump vast quantities of sodium in order to make them taste more appealing. About 75 percent of the sodium that we consume comes from processed foods, according to this article from the American Heart Association website. As I discovered when I studied the labels of the foodstuffs in my refrigerator and kitchen shelves, a lot of products that have "healthy," "organic," or "natural" on the label actually are, in effect, dietary assassins on a clandestine mission to burst my blood vessels.
My favorite canned veggie chili has nearly 600 milligrams of sodium concealed within its goodness, and the organic creamy tomato soup emblazoned with the name of a famous 19th Century naturalist has an astonishing 720 milligrams per bowl. Those healthy-looking brown whole-grain tortillas are armed with 450 milligrams apiece. The name-brand salsa? You don't even want to know.
A trip to the supermarket proved to be an even more discouraging experience. Even those convenient and supposedly heart-healthy packs of instant oatmeal pack 200-plus milligrams of sodium, and eight ounces of organic whole milk doubles that amount. Ersatz burgers, chicken-nuggets made of soy protein, frozen veggie pizza and "light" salad dressings are now out of the question. I started imagining myself as Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in that post-war scene in Gone With The Wind, reduced by hunger to digging desperately in the soil for roots on which to gnaw.
As it turns out, though, I needed to look harder. There are a few prepared foods, such as Trader Joe's balsamic vinaigrette dressing (60 milligrams) or the tasty almond butter (0 milligrams) that I can use without too much worry. I found a whole-wheat tortilla that had about 70 percent less sodium than the brand I previously used. The big generic cans of unflavored instant oatmeal, as it turns out, are sodium-free, even if I have to add a sprinkling of light brown sugar to make them taste less like cardboard. And most vegetables -- even the frozen microwavable packages that I prefer because they last longer -- seem to have little or no sodium as well. Roasted unsalted mixed cashews, almonds and other nuts also are sodium-free. And if I stick to light-colored, lower-fat cheeses, I can shave 70 to 100 milligrams off each serving.
As I cut back on sodium, though, I noticed something else surprising. Once I got used to the actual, un-enhanced tastes of various foods, I actually liked them just as much or better. And after I ate a low-sodium lunch -- such as a spinach salad with roasted almonds, a few chunks of light cheddar, apple slices, and a low-sodium mango salsa dressing that I found at Safeway -- I felt just as satisfied. (Here's a picture of my creation.) I've found that if I read labels carefully enough, I can even find salty-tasting snacks I can consume in moderation.
Generally, the easiest route to reducing your sodium is this simple rule: Avoid processed foods and make your own meals, preferably out of raw ingredients. And don't neglect to read labels, even on containers of unprocessed foods. Lowsaltfoods.com is a good resource. The site offers recipes, advice on how to control your sodium intake while you're dining out, tips on low-sodium substitutions for your old favorites, and a database of the sodium content of various products.
If you need additional inspiration, here's a good article by Washington Post writer Tim Carman, who recounts his sodium-reducing efforts and misadventures. Also, a SecondAct colleague who's a serious runner suggests checking out Map My Run, a social network running site that helps you track your diet as well as your exercise regimen.
Here's an article from Physorg.com, the science site, on how to watch out for hidden sodium in your food.