Should Young(er) Adults Be Worried About Sodium?

By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

I recently had a conversation with my nineteen-year-old brother about his extremely poor dietary habits. He was an athlete throughout high school and continues to consider himself in top physical shape despite the fact that his diet consists of soft drinks, pizza rolls, hot pockets, and an occasional salad. Hypertension runs on both sides of our family while diabetes also runs on our mom’s side of the family. Like any nineteen-year-old, he is living in the world of ‘right now’ and usually not thinking about how his choices now will impact his future health. It wasn’t until recently that I finally got through to him by asking if he wanted his future health to look like that of our grandmother who has been battling complications from medications for the past year. He quickly responded with a lighthearted answer, but I could see the wheels turning in his mind.

Your overall diet today will impact your future, regardless of your age. Unfortunately, sometimes future effects do not take their time to appear. I recently learned of a nine-year-old  diagnosed with high blood pressure. The reality is that chronic conditions we expect to see in our senior adult years are beginning to show up in early life. My encouragement to you is to jumpstart healthier choices today. Whether you are in your teens or your sixties, too much sodium in the diet can lead to hypertension, raising your risk for other complications.

February is heart month and a huge part of heart-health is overall sodium intake. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy individuals limit their sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day; those with hypertension or pre-hypertension should limit their intake to 1,500 mg per day. This may seem like a lot, but the average American consumes about 3,400 mg per day. Where is all of this sodium coming from?

The truth is, it is not the salt shaker making up the majority of our intake. In fact, salt shakers only contribute 10%-12%. Pre-packaged foods in boxes and cans, convenience foods like frozen meals, and eating out make up the majority of sodium intake. Unfortunately, deli meats and cured meats are also large contributors. It sounds like I am delivering lots of bad news. I tell you these things so you can be on the lookout and stay within your sodium budget. Again, I am not saying you can never have foods that are high in sodium, but it shouldn’t be a regular occurrence- think about balancing your [sodium] budget!

Cooking at home is a huge step towards reducing your sodium intake. When cooking, use more herbs and spices instead of seasoning salts and packet seasonings. Substitute the bullion cubes for unsalted broth. Swap about the broths and stocks for the unsalted version. Even the ‘reduced sodium’ broths are high in sodium, they simply have a little less than the original. Use the ‘unsalted’ and add your own salt. You will add far less sodium than if this step was done for you. Cooking at home begins with meal planning. Meals do not have to be fancy. In fact, the simpler the better! Choose proteins that are low in saturated fat, bulk up on fruits and vegetables, and make sure your grains are whole. Crockpot dinners can be your best friend and closest ally in getting quick, balanced meals on the table.

When planning meals, list the days of the week and fill in any prior commitments. Next, take a look at the fridge and pantry to see what items need to be used before they go bad and plan a meal based on those items. Step three is to check the store circular and coupons to find items on sale for cheaper meals. For example, shrimp may be BOGO Free and zucchini are on sale. Sounds like a meal to me! Grilled shrimp and zucchini- served with brown rice you had in the pantry. Continue this process until all days are filled in. Plan for leftovers! These leftovers are essentially “meal prepping” for lunch to take to work the next day- saving you time, money, and sodium consumption!

My final tip in reducing your sodium intake is to be a label reader. Sure, macronutrients like fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are important, but sodium is equally important. Check to see that the %Daily Value per portion is less than 20%. A 5% DV means that food is low in sodium (or whatever nutrient you are examining) and a 20% DV means that food is high in that particular nutrient. If you eat something with a 20% DV, it isn’t the end of the world because we all have a budget. Just be sure to limit sodium throughout the rest of the day.

If you are interested in learning more about meal planning, simple and quick meals, healthy cooking, and reading labels, be sure to visit the Johnston County Cooperative Extension website and click on the “Family and Consumer Sciences” tab.