By Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFPP
We regularly hear the dangers of too much salt in our diets, but what is the real story?
Sodium, a component of salt, is an essential nutrient that has many vital functions in our bodies. In other words - we need salt to survive - in limited amounts. As an electrolyte, sodium attracts and holds water in the blood and is key in maintaining healthy blood pressure levels and muscle function. Too much sodium leads to increased blood volume and elevated blood pressure, increasing the risk for stroke and causing damage to the heart, kidneys, blood vessels, eyes and brain (vascular dementia).
Along with worsening chronic conditions, too much salt in an elder’s diet can lead to trips to the emergency room, especially common in the case of heart failure. Managing sodium at mealtimes can directly reduce hospital admissions or lessen the need to enter long-term care. If your goal is keeping elders in their home and in your care, read on.
What's the Magic Number?
Blood pressure increases with age and so does the body’s sensitivity of sodium. An older adults’ kidneys also have more difficulty removing excess sodium. Elders, over the age of 51, African Americans, and those with hypertension, diabetes and heart or kidney disease should limit daily sodium to 1500 mg or less.
Make it a Choice
It’s very important to include the elder in this discussion before reducing salt. For older, more frail elders, the risk of malnutrition can be reduced with a more relaxed approach. If a little extra salt helps them to eat more and enjoy meals, use that technique. In general, eating less than 2300 mg of sodium daily is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for all Americans.
Elders, over the age of 51, African Americans, and those with high blood pressure, diabetes and heart or kidney disease should limit daily sodium to 1500 mg or less.
Balance Sodium with Potassium
Potassium, another key electrolyte, helps to balance the effects of sodium on the blood. Filling the menu with potassium rich foods-like fruits and vegetables (especially tomato products, potatoes, bananas, melon and citrus), low fat dairy products, dry beans, and seafood like salmon, tuna and mackerel can reduce the risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. These foods have many other health benefits too- many being high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Steps for Reducing Sodium
Over 70% of daily sodium comes from packaged and processed foods, not salt added during cooking or at the table. Limiting frozen prepared meals, deli and cured meats, pizza, snack foods, canned soups or stews, chicken and pork, pasta, cheese and sandwiches is a good place to start.
Try these tips to reduce sodium in the diet:
- Look at the label: Think twice before serving foods with more than 300 mg/serving or 20 %DV (for a 1500 mg sodium diet).
- Use different cooking methods to impart flavor on foods without adding salt. Try roasting, broiling or grilling meats and vegetables.
- Prepare foods at home “from scratch” or in their most natural form. Restaurant meals and processed foods are at the top of the high-salt list.
- Season with herbs and spices, freshly ground black pepper, citrus, vinegar or marinades without added salt.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (frozen is OK, too) and low-fat dairy products, which are naturally high in potassium.
- When adding cheese, use strongly flavored varieties, like sharp cheddar or Parmesan. Use less for the same flavor.
- Choose fresh fruits and vegetables or lower salt nuts, seeds or snacks over regular chips, crackers, pretzels or popcorn.
- Lessen the serving size; less food = less sodium per serving.
Many believe that reducing salt in foods will make it flavorless. A little salt will go a long way for flavor enhancement and other seasonings can help round out the taste. As salt is reduced, the taste buds will adapt and not notice the difference- and the cardiovascular system will thank you!
Chef Beth Scholer CC, CDM, CFPP is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She is passionate about empowering caregivers to make positive nutritional changes for those in their care. She can be reached at email@example.com
FDA. Food Facts: Sodium in the Diet. Use Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce Your Intake. June 2018. Web 15 Aug. 2018. https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/UCM315471.pdf
Scholer, B. (2017) Culinary Skills for Caregivers TM Training Series. Chronic Conditions: A Guide for Managing Mealtime. Caregivers Kitchen LLC.