A doctor/chef shares her simple secrets for making delicious low-sodium meals…

Has your doctor told you that you need to cut back on salty foods? You may already know that having too much sodium can increase blood pressure. Now a new 20-year study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says that individuals with the lowest sodium intake seem to have the lowest risk of dying early.

The salt threat: People who have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease or who are African-American or age 51 and older are often salt-sensitive. That means they have a sharp increase in blood pressure when they eat salty foods and are at greater risk for stroke, heart attack and other dangerous health problems. However, many people don’t realize that even those who are not salt-sensitive could have an increase in blood pressure if they eat too much sodium.

Here’s the good news: There are many simple ways to reduce your sodium intake without sacrificing flavor!

A Doctor/Chef’s Tips for Reducing Sodium

The average sodium intake per day in the US is a whopping 3,400 mg (that’s about one-and-one-half teaspoons of table salt). However, the American Heart Association advises just 1,500 mg per day (two-thirds of a teaspoon) or less for optimal health. It may be no surprise that fast-food items and deli meats have a lot of salt. But restaurant meals and store-bought sauces, salad dressings, soups and even bread tend to be loaded with sodium as well.

Michelle Hauser, MD, MPA, a primary care doctor and certified Le Cordon Bleu chef, says the absolute best way to cut back on salt is to prepare more meals at home using fresh, unprocessed ingredients. This not only enables you to control the amount of salt added to meals but also maximizes the flavor of food so that a little salt goes a long way.

Some people prefer to wean themselves off salt slowly, while others find it easier to go “cold turkey.”

Either way, here are Dr. Hauser’s flavor-packed suggestions…  

Add some acid. A few drops of a sour ingredient, like citrus juice or vinegar, wakes up the flavor in foods and enhances any salt you do use, allowing you to get by with less.

What to do: Add a squeeze of lime to low-sodium black bean soup (it will make the soup taste saltier and give it a Latin flavor)…include a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar in your homemade tomato sauce…add a few drops of Tabasco sauce (made from red peppers and vinegar) to chili…and use an orange juice–based marinade to tenderize and flavor chicken. Other tasty sources of acid include the juice of Meyer lemons or grapefruits. Another option: Flavored vinegars—some are infused with herbs such as thyme or rosemary…others contain fruits like raspberries or figs.

Salt smart. Do you have trouble knowing how much salt to add to your dishes? Here’s how to get maximum flavor without going overboard… 

What to do: To get the hang of this technique, try it with an unsalted sauce. Taste the sauce, taking note of the flavors. Sip some water, then add a few drops of an acidic ingredient to the sauce (see above) and stir. Taste again, noticing how much brighter and flavorful the dish is. Next, add a pinch or two of salt, stir and taste. If you taste the salt only on the tip of your tongue, the sauce is undersalted. Take a sip of water, and add another pinch or two of salt. The dish is perfectly salted when you taste the salt on the middle to the back of your tongue. The food is oversalted if the flavor hits the back of your throat.

Try these tasty all-natural salt substitutes. Forget the potassium chloride salt-substitute sold in shakers at the grocery store—they can have a chemical or metallic taste. Fresh and dried herbs and spices add delicious flavors to your dishes and boost the impact of a small amount of salt.

What to do: You can buy fresh or dried rosemary, thyme and basil in grocery stores, but it’s very easy to grow these herbs at home. Also, stock up on store-bought garlic and onion powders (not salts), cumin, coriander, Mexican oregano, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper.

Premade seasoning mixes—like Mrs. Dash Salt-Free Seasoning Blends, combinations of herbs, spices and dried vegetables—are available in grocery stores. But you may want to add some international flavor by using spice mixes from India, Asia, the Middle East or Africa. For example, Ras-El-Hanout is a Moroccan spice mix made of cumin, turmeric, allspice, coriander and pepper. You can buy this mix in gourmet cooking stores or online…or make it yourself (see the recipe at ChefInResidency.com).

Try roasting or grilling vegetables. These high-temperature cooking methods cause a chemical reaction that releases hundreds of rich, savory flavor compounds (think of roasted or grilled mushrooms).  With all this natural flavor, you’ll never even miss the salt! The key is making sure that the surface of the food is as dry as possible before cooking (oils and seasonings are fine, but no added water). Caution: Grilling and frying meats and fish can produce carcinogenic compounds, so avoid charring or overcooking these foods.

Other Helpful Tips

Consider flaked kosher salt—it has about half the sodium per teaspoon of granulated salt.

Note: Some people think sea salt is healthier than table salt. The facts: There are small amounts of minerals and micronutrients in sea salt, but if you are getting the appropriate amount of sodium, these nutrients are not likely to affect your health. And sea salt contains just as much sodium as table salt by weight.

Get more potassium. A high-potassium diet can blunt the effect of salt on blood pressure by increasing sodium excretion from the body. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is the best way to get the 4,700 mg per day of potassium suggested by the Institute of Medicine. Good sources of potassium: Leafy greens, beans, potatoes, bananas, avocados, papaya, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, fish, chili peppers and powder, and even dark chocolate.

Caution: Check with your doctor before increasing your potassium intake if you have a chronic health condition (such as kidney disease) or take medication.

Add some interest to your plate by eating foods with a variety of colors, textures and flavors. When you eat with all your senses, you will be less likely to need salt.

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