February 9, 2011 at 9:45 am , by Amelia Harnish
For the second installment of our back-to-basics heart health series we tackled hypertension: what it does and how to control it. One of the most shocking things I learned from the piece was the huge role sodium can play in raising your blood pressure and harming your health. Yet every day the average American woman consumes more than double the recommended amount of sodium without even realizing it. Cutting your salt intake can be tough. But one of our favorite bloggers, Jessica Goldman (right, also known as Sodium Girl), proves that low-salt living is doable and even fun. Here she shares her story and, after the jump, some good ideas for tastier, healthier eating—with no added salt.
By Jessica Goldman
Growing up, my three favorite meals were fried chicken, Szechuan beef and macaroni and cheese. Like most people, I was a verifiable salt fiend. But in 2004, when an aggressive attack of the autoimmune disease lupus caused my kidneys to fail, my eating habits had to change a lot. Quick fixes like canned soups and sauces (often off the charts in sodium content) were out of the question, as were casual dinners out, since so many chefs throw salt around by the handful.
When you have excess sodium in your diet (and trust me, if you’re not paying attention you probably do), the extra salt spills into your bloodstream, which makes you retain fluid and raises your blood pressure. Your kidneys normally regulate your sodium level, so for me, losing the salt was imperative.
Losing the thrill of eating, however, was not an option. So I approached my dietary challenge like a game of charades. Think back to the last time you played. Without words, you had to find alternative means of communicating. Without salt, my culinary crutch, I had to find alternative means of creating flavor.
I shifted my focus from the limitations to the unlimited alternatives. I experimented with new vegetables (beets and bok choy) and new spices (fennel seed and smoked paprika). I broiled and roasted my ingredients to enhance their natural sweetness and spice. I explored exotic cuisines (like Moroccan and Indian) that I had never tried before. And I even created sodium-free solutions for my favorite salty dishes, enjoying the tastes of Szechuan beef and fried chicken once again. With constant surprises in texture and taste, I found I didn’t miss salt at all. (Pictured above: my sodium-free yakisoba)
Learning to cook better didn’t just spice up my meals at home, it also enabled me to eat out again. I’ve found that many chefs enjoy the challenge of cooking without salt, and if I provide helpful suggestions, they create meals that are truly unique.
After a little research and experimentation, I now live a limitless low-sodium life. I gained a deeper understanding of flavor and food and, most importantly, I avoided a kidney transplant and dialysis. Without a doubt salt has a place in the kitchen for many people, but it pays to think outside the box—for your taste buds and your health.
Willing to give it a try? Here’s how to get started:
Be cautious. Many products have huge variations in sodium depending on the brand. Compare labels before you buy, and pay close attention to serving sizes.
Be skilled. Cook with taste-enhancing techniques like browning, roasting, grilling and braising to add deep flavor to even the simplest meat and vegetable dishes.
Be tricky. Use less common spices, such as cinnamon, horseradish, smoked paprika and nutmeg, to surprise your taste buds so much that they won’t have time to miss the salt.
Be creative. Low-sodium substitutes exist for many salty ingredients. Some of my favorite swaps: soy yogurt for mayonnaise, molasses for miso paste and salt-free matzo meal for breadcrumbs.
Be aware. Many restaurants boil vegetables and grains in salted water, so ask if they can use fresh ingredients with no salt for your meal. And watch out for words like cured, pickled, brined or smoked—all cues the dish is loaded with salt.
Photos by Jessica Goldman.
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