Shaking out sodium

One family examines whether their diet is worth its salt

“But….what about my chips?!?” Doug sputters into the phone.

I sigh, lower my tone and tell my husband he can still munch on his beloved weekend snack, but that Today’s Parent readers will know about it. After all, we are going to track our salt intake for a week to evaluate how much of it our time-pressed family — Annika, age five, Desmond, two, and their parents, Doug, 39, and I, 37 — are consuming.

Let’s put the chips back on the shelf for a second: We’re not actually a salt-shaker-on-the-table type of family. We are, however, busy: whirling between work, daycare, karate/swimming/skating lessons, playdates and more. So we turn to processed foods — takeout meals, store-bought prepared foods and packaged snacks — to get us through our busiest days. But relying on these foods worries me because too much salt puts my kids at risk of obesity and developing high blood pressure. Plus, Doug and I both have family histories of high blood pressure.

Salt, says Norm Campbell, a Calgary physician and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, is like an accelerant to many conditions: The more sodium we take in, the more likely we are to face potential health concerns such as high blood pressure, kidney failure, strokes and heart attacks.

So I ask Natalie Brown, a White Rock, BC, registered dietitian and Mary Bamford, a registered dietitian in Toronto, for help in eagle-eyeing our salt intake. We’ve promised to (honestly) track what we’re eating for a week and hand them the diary for analysis. Gulp. Here goes.

Our diet diary

Sunday
Lunch: Tim Horton’s; me — small egg salad sandwich for me; kids and Doug — ham and Swiss sandwiches; assorted doughnuts and coffee
Supper: All of us — homemade pizza (olives and pepperoni; and ham and pineapple), water and milk

OK, we wanted to start our week better than this. Post Sunday morning swim lessons, tummies rumbling, Doug and I opted for lunch at Tim Horton’s and smugly congratulated ourselves for choosing it over typical fast food fare. Ha! It turns out the sandwiches weren’t a low-salt pick. Between that and the pizzas that night, Sunday was our highest sodium intake of the week, says Brown — higher than McDonald’s which we ate Wednesday evening after karate. “That day your salt reached 1,000 mg, Doug’s was 3,800 mg and the kids were 2,880 mg,” she notes. Why so high? Brown points the finger at processed deli meats, which along with processed cheese spreads, pickles, condimentsand sauces, which all pack a serious salt punch. Doug’s sandwich alone cost 1,450 mg of sodium — that’s more than half a teaspoon of salt.

Tuesday
Breakfast:
Doug and Des — toast with natural peanut butter and jam, milk, coffee and, later, ½ waffle with maple syrup for Des; Annika — one waffle with maple syrup, milk; me — two small President’s Choice Blue Menu Apple Cinnamon Bran muffins, coffee
Dinner: Kids — mac and cheese; strawberries; me — homemade vegetable soup (made with bouillon cube chicken stock) and PC Blue Menu Scottish Haddock fillet; Doug — ham and pineapple pizza

Breakfasts, which I thought proved more sweet than salty in our house, actually had quite a few high-sodium items — our waffles and muffins, which at 380 mg of sodium per muffin, both had the whistle blown for sodium violations. On the packaged side, Brown gave us points for our Blue Menu choice. “The haddock fillet was a great pick at 290 mg per fillet,” she says.
Thursday
Supper: Doug and kids — homemade potato wedges made with kosher salt and olive oil; PC Blue Menu Crunchy Baked chicken breast; Source yogurt for dessert; me — a Blue Menu Scottish Haddock fillet

The 450 mg of sodium per chicken breast got the official thumbs up from our experts. However, the homemade wedges? They were seasoned with kosher salt after I went and got all Rachel Ray in the kitchen, so that dish got the red flag. “You could have tossed sweet potato with chili powder and thyme, or white potato with sweet paprika or fresh rosemary,” says Bamford.

Friday
Snack: Kids — apples and handful of yogurt pretzels; me — handful of unsalted cashews

For snacks, it was a mix of good and not-so-good. The fruit and unsalted cashews were good snack options. And the bad? Goldfish crackers (my kids had a cup or so each on Wednesday), as well as the yogurt pretzels I bought at the bulk food store when I couldn’t bear whiny snack requests any more.

Saturday night
Doug — large popcorn, large Coke; me — medium popcorn, medium Diet Coke; kids — snack mix of Bits & Bites mixed with yogurt pretzels

Hurray for date night (Doug and I went to the movies while the kids stayed home with a babysitter)! Boo for our snack choices! Although we knew this would send us over the top, both RDs frowned more on our portion size than our choice of treat. “Fun treat food can be part of special occasions, but you could stretch it out with some healthier treats,” Brown tsk tsks.

Post-sodium survival

I started following Brown’s advice about home cooking and baking. “Don’t add salt in your recipes — it’s usually not needed,” she says. “Instead try using more herbs, spices, seasonings like fresh or powdered garlic, onions, ginger, Mrs. Dash, zest from citrus fruits and others.” That also meant ditching some of my recipes — bye-bye homemade chocolate chip-sea salt cookies. In fact, fresh herbs have become my new best friend because of the zing they add to my cooking, and I love my new ruler-like citrus microplane, which shaves the pieces so small, the kids can’t pick them out, even after a 10-minute grueling inspection.

I’m also trying to be creative with snacks so I won’t get cornered like I did in the bulk food store. “You could try things like frozen banana slices with peanut butter and veggies with “zippy” dip — equal parts hummus and salsa with a little plain yogurt or sour cream,” says Bamford.

We’re also working on trimming down on what turns out to be our food Achilles heel — those processed meats — and replacing them with protein such as chicken instead. And both dietitians suggested we start reading labels — below the calorie and fat lines. “Your meals should contain no more than approx 500 mg salt and snacks no more than 300 mg,” says Brown. (See There’s salt in that?) We can also look for label terms such as “salt free” (meaning they have less than 5 mg salt/serving), “low sodium” (less than 140 mg sodium/serving) or “reduced in sodium” (at least 25 percent or less than the regular product). And thankfully some packaged food manufacturers are already catching on and flagging their low sodium products such as McCain’s Low Salt Superfries or Kraft’s Unsalted Peanut Butter.

But it’s taking us time to adapt — we’re still brainstorming brown bag lunch ideas to replace Doug’s deli meat sandwiches, and I’m pushing fruit on the kids when it comes to snack time.

And those chips? When he’s feeling munchy, Doug for now has switched to nuts (salted unfortunately, but at least he gets some heart-healthy Omega-3 fats). But I can only do so much at a time.

There’s salt in that?

Who knew cornflakes had sodium? Take a look at the salt levels in some of your favourite foods:

15 saltine crackers: 220 mg
Slice of whole wheat bread: 150 mg
Can of Coke: 40 mg
1 cup of orange juice: 25 mg
1 cup of Corn flakes: 200 mg
Slice of deli ham: 103 mg
Serving of President’s
Choice Meat Lasagna: 1080 mg
½ cup of yogurt: 55 mg

How much is too much?

Here’s how much salt the Institute of Medicine in Washington, DC, notes we can have each day:

Age 1-3 years: maximum 1,000 mg
Age 4-8 years: maximum 1,200 mg
Age 9–50 years: 1,500 mg

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