5 Guidelines for a Healthy Diet
Fish is good for you, but watch out for mercury. Limit your salt, but don’t cut it out entirely. Today’s nutritional debates leave consumers starved for the bottom line. Here it is for five key ingredients.
The Conventional Wisdom
Excess sodium increases the risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Salt should be avoided whenever possible.
We may be in danger of taking the salt-cutting crusade too far, say critics—who include, yes, the salt industry but also some independent scientists. After all, sodium is essential for muscle contraction (like the kind needed for the heart to beat), nerve-impulse transmission, pH balance, and hydration. While research findings supporting a low-salt diet have made headlines, some scientists are beginning to doubt the safety of extremely low-salt regimens for some groups of people.
Finding a Balance
There’s no conclusive evidence that lower amounts of salt are beneficial, says a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences. But you certainly don’t need the 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day that Americans, on average, currently consume. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends less than 2,300 milligrams (just under a teaspoon) for healthy people and 1,500 milligrams for those with certain risk factors, such as being age 51 or over or having diabetes. How can we stop overdoing it? The fastest way is to limit processed foods. “It’s these items, not our salt shakers, that supply over 70 percent of the sodium in our diets,” says Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., a research nutritionist at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. Salt is a preservative and a flavor enhancer, which is why it’s in almost anything that you buy in a box, a can, or a bag. What packs a high amount of salt isn’t always obvious: The salt content in soups, breads, and even breakfast cereals (some of which have higher salt-to-calorie ratios than chips) can quickly add up.
So read labels carefully when you shop. Even better, cook at home, where you can control the salt. If you consumed a lot of salty products in one day (French-fry binge!), be extra mindful the next. And use lemon juice, vinegar, herbs, onions, or garlic—not extra salt—to amp up the flavor of your food.