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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cutting salt to cut fat

I think most of us are aware that we should try to limit our sodium intake. Perhaps you refrain from salting your food, or try not to eat high salt foods like canned soups and frozen meals. You might even be checking food labels, looking to see if salt is one of the major ingredients.

But did you know that a high sodium intake can actually affect your weight loss success? It's true. Excess sodium intake actually causes your fat cells to grow larger, meaning that even with the same amount of fat, you will LOOK more flabby. Excess sodium can also increase fluid retention, keeping the scale from moving (while you feel frustrated) even as you exercise and reduce calories.

On a health note, although sodium may not be the primary factor, studies have shown that people with a high sodium intake are at higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. I believe that this has more to do with the fact that excessively rich foods are often extremely high in sodium, so people consuming a high sodium diet are often also eating excessively fatty foods.

A shocking fact I found in my research is that while the recommended intake for sodium in the U.S. is 1000mg or less for each 1000 calories you eat (that would be 2000mg for a typical 2000 calorie diet), most Americans are eating 4000-5000mg of sodium per day. ACK! And you should know that in the U.K., the recommended intake is even lower, at a maximum of 1600mg per day. So clearly, there's some reason to wonder whether the U.S. RDA is low enough. I personally try to keep to 1500mg per day or less. And it's not easy!

So how do you reduce your sodium intake? Is putting the salt shaker back in the cabinet enough? Sadly, no. The amount of salt people add to most of what they eat ends up contributing a very small percentage of their overall sodium intake. In fact, 75% of our sodium intake comes from processed and restaurant foods, with just 10% coming from salt added at the table or during cooking, and the remaining 15% occurring naturally in food.

To make matters worse, low sodium eating hasn't gotten as much attention from food manufacturers as things like eating low-fat or low-carb. So you may be hard-pressed to find low sodium items at your grocery. In fact, when I check labels at my own grocery, I find the low-fat items are often higher in sodium than their high-fat counterparts. Manufacturers add salt to their products to replace the flavor lost when fat is removed.

Here are some strategies to help you reduce your sodium intake:
  • Limit restaurant and fast foods. A typical meal at a restaurant can often contain three times the recommended daily intake of sodium - and that's just at one meal! If you are eating out, look for low sodium meals or recommendations on the restaurant's website. For instance, Outback Steakhouse gives customers specific ordering requests they can use to reduce sodium in their meals.
  • Eat sparingly from processed and prepackaged (often frozen) meals. Check the ingredients and you'll be shocked by how much sodium they contain. Add to that their tendency to overstate the number of servings, and you might end up getting 2000mg of sodium in a single meal!
  • Read labels on grocery foods. Look for less than 300mg per serving in sodium in most foods, and 150mg or less in bread. In the ingredients list, look out for sodium additives. I've included a list at the bottom of the article.
  • Reduce your reliance on soups as casserole ingredients, and make your own broth rather than using packaged broths or bullion cubes. Even low sodium broths often have more than 300mg per 1 cup. An exception -- Pacific Natural Foods has a great "no salt added" chicken broth, with just 70mg sodium per 1 cup serving.
  • Buy "no salt" varieties of foods that really don't need salt to taste good. I buy "no salt" peanut butter and cottage cheese to name a few.
I challenge you to spend the next week trying to cut your sodium intake. See if you can find any hidden sources of sodium and whether the reduced sodium intake helps you look better or weigh less. I'd love to hear how you do!

Remember, when you're checking those labels, you need to look for more than just salt. Common sodium-increasing food ingredients:
  • Baking soda and Baking powder
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Sodium nitrate and nitrite
  • Sodium alginate
  • Disodium inosinate
  • Disodium guanylate
And here are some specific types of foods that are often high in sodium:
  • Bottled sauces like salad dressings, ketchup, and BBQ sauce
  • Canned soup
  • Canned vegetables and beans
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cured meats like lunch meat and hot dogs
  • Fermented foods like pickles and green olives
  • Items containing baking powder, like Bisquick, pizza dough, and biscuits
  • Salted snack foods like chips, crackers, pretzels, and nuts
  • Soy sauce (even light soy sauce) and items made with them (Chinese food, for example)


  1. salt is entirely my nemesis.
    I know I need to cut back (hello my FAVE beef jerky!) but Im not there.

  2. MizFit, I have to agree. It's very hard to cut back. Being aware of it, though, I think you will find ways over time to cut back. Once you do, you will be amazed how your tastebuds change.

  3. Thank you for the links, armouris! First one has great suggestions on seasoning without salt, and the second has really interesting discussions of links between high sodium intake and stomach cancer. Appreciate you sharing your resources.

  4. Hi Liz, i've stated to be a little worried bout sodium. i find that with all the physical activity i am craving salt and think it has gotten out of control. i'll spend the next week keeping a close eye on it and maybe some of this weight will move.

    Thanks for the heads up,


  5. Thanks for the post, Chris. I look forward to hearing how you do over the next week. Make sure you are getting plenty of fluids!