Sliding Into Low-Sodium Life (and Why Many People Don’t)

I switched to a low-sodium diet smoothly, but only because of my advantages. For most people, it’s much harder. Which means fewer people do it. Which means some people who’d otherwise live, die.

Higher sodium leads to higher blood pressure, lower sodium leads to lower blood pressure. People whose blood pressure is too low benefit from consuming more salt, but in the United States in the early 21st century, high blood pressure is more common. Way more common.

My father has been on a low-sodium diet for years. He scouted which restaurants can be trusted to prepare low-sodium dishes (upon request, no restaurant offers low-sodium dishes right on the menu, ha ha). He judges by taste, and he judges by comparing his blood pressure readings after he eats the ‘normal’ dish and after he eats the ‘no salt added’ dish. I don’t have to put in that effort because I copied his list… which is one restaurant (there used to be more, but they went out of business, or I don’t want their food for some other reason).

When I was young, I made a project of improving my cooking. Part of that was cooking dishes without salt to see what would happen, then seeing how little salt I could get away with and still get good flavor. Thanks to my younger self, I know how to prepare tasty low-sodium food. It would’ve been much more stressful if I started learning now.

Some of my principles of low-sodium cooking are:

  • Food with no salt added often tastes flat. Other ingredients can overcome the flatness—but only if they have good flavor.
  • Salt is a mask. It sometimes covers superb yet subtle flavors in other ingredients. More often, it covers mediocre flavor.
  • If a dish has good flavorful ingredients but tastes flat, it takes very little salt to remove the flatness. I still put a little salt in my food partially for this reason. I’m careful to only add a tiny amount.
  • If the ingredients are bleh, it takes more than a little salt to cover that.
  • The right herbs and spices help a lot. Spicy ingredients can cover a lack of salt, but then your food is spicy (which may be good or bad, depending on your preference). Non-spicy herbs and spices help too, but they won’t cover the flavors of other ingredients.

Nowadays, I’m mostly eating my own cooking from scratch or quasi-scratch. I can do this because I have a kitchen (I didn’t have a kitchen for a few years) and I have the time/energy/skills/etc. to prepare my own meals. Suffice to say… many people don’t have this option, or only have this option at a high cost.

It’s difficult to find processed foods in grocery stores/supermarkets without added salt. Even many sweet foods have high sodium. I check the labels. When the sodium low enough, I buy even if salt is on the ingredient list. Checking the label of everything you put in the cart is an effort, which means some people don’t check.

How would I have switched to a low-sodium diet when I didn’t have a kitchen? I could’ve moved to a place with a kitchen (big effort there, and possibly higher rent) or I could’ve brought in a rice cooker and/or an electric hot plate (not a bad option actually, but still an effort and expense and not as flexible as a full kitchen) or I could’ve lived off meal replacements mixes (bleh). This was when I already had low-sodium cooking experience.

Given that many people can’t cook their own meals from scratch/semi-scratch, or they can but at too high a cost in energy/time, or even if they can they never learned how to make low-sodium meals tasty, and that it’s hard to find eateries which reliably sell low-sodium food (and such eateries may not be available) most people won’t switch to a low-sodium diet. Even if they know that high sodium contributes to high blood pressure, which increases strain on the heart, which might kill them.

So what’s a solution which can scale?

Better education about the dangers of a high-sodium diet would help some people, but not solve any of the above problems. Better education about how to prepare tasty low-sodium foods would help only a little more.

Why are high-sodium foods so prevalent both in eateries and in grocery stores?

I think you can guess the answer.

If you can’t… imagine what would happen if they offered low-sodium options.

The flavors of the other ingredients would come out more… so eaters would notice more when the flavors were not so good. Unless they get an excellent flavor balance, the foods would taste flat. Without great care and consistency, customers will all prefer the higher-sodium options. And taking care to consistently use high-quality ingredients costs more money. It’s not profitable.

I can’t think of any intervention which would change this at scale. If the government placed mandates, most food processors won’t get it right at first, which means a lot of food will taste flat. Ditto for restaurants. People will be upset because their favorite foods are ruined. Eaters would also have the ‘hack’ of adding salt after they purchase the food. For most people, most of the time, taste shapes our decisions far more than intellectual knowledge about health.

The ultimate problem is we crave salt. We evolved this craving in an era when we struggled to get enough salt, before we became homo sapiens.

I don’t know how to get a large number of people who need to lower their blood pressure to switch to low-sodium diets. But as an individual, I recommend you go on a low-sodium diet for a few weeks. (If you can). Even if you aren’t worried about high blood pressure now, odds are you or someone you love will need to go on a low-sodium diet to reduce their blood pressure some day. A few weeks is enough time to practice the basics so that, when the stakes are higher, you can make the switch smoother.

***

I started measuring my blood pressure after I switched my diet. I don’t know what my blood pressure readings were before, but now they are all in the healthy range. The higher side of the healthy range.

Perhaps, before I made the switch, my blood pressure was above the healthy range.

2 thoughts on “Sliding Into Low-Sodium Life (and Why Many People Don’t)

  1. I’ve had diagnosed hypertension (high blood pressure) for like 4 years now I think, and medication that attempts to treat it but my diastolic number is always high anyway even with the medication.

    My doctors (I’ve had two different primary care doctors over these years) will tell me to eat a low sodium diet but not how, or check with me about if I’m trying or why or why not… I tried to bring up my addiction to regular soy sauce (low sodium soy sauce tastes different and worse, it’s not just less salty) and wasabi to see if my doctor would pay attention if I causally mentioned it. She didn’t seem to really be listening. (I think watered down regular soy sauce honestly might be an option of a solution… it tastes better than whatever they sell as low sodium soy sauce.) The real reason I don’t switch to a lower sodium diet is a combination of many factors. There’s lots of eating habits I could do to be healthier in general, and I can’t cut out caffeine if I never was consuming it in the first place, etc… but it’s also hard for me to prioritize changing a diet I’m enjoying so much lol.

    At least I started exercising recently. and I can work on stopping over eating. And taking baby steps towards being healthier.

    • Exactly, it’s a combination of factors. I’m lucky that I have the advantages I do in switching to a low sodium diet, but I have trouble seeing how a majority of Americans can do it in practice.

      I hope you find a way to better health, and watered-down soy sauce seems like a potentially good idea to me. It might be enough to remove the flatness in food at a level low enough to still be ‘low sodium.’

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