Sunday, 24 March 2013

OMG with the sodium!

CBC had a piece on sodium recently, and it turns out that 77% of respondents in a survey exceeded recommended daily sodium intake.  The average Canadian (and American) sodium intake is 3,400 mg per day, well above the tolerable upper intake level of 2,300 mg recommended by Health Canada.

Excess sodium intake is tied to high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, and other cardiovascular issues, as well as edema and kidney problems.

While my blood pressure has generally been normal, I do have an issue with edema in one of my legs/feet, and my family has a history of heart disease.  So it's something that I can't pooh-pooh and say has nothing to do with me - - that would make me willfully blind to the potential health problems associated with high sodium intake.  Given that excess sodium is such a problematic thing, I thought it would be a good idea to look at my actual sodium consumption.

The nice thing about keeping a food diary is that I can go back through my daily records and see exactly how much sodium I have been taking in.  And the results were both surprising and horrifying.

The above chart shows my daily sodium intake since I started logging my food consumption back in July 2012.  I guarantee these numbers are understated as well, because I have seldom, if ever, tracked diet pop (it's zero calories, after all).  This weekend I discovered that my innocent little can of Diet Pepsi has 35 mg of sodium in it!  What the hell?!  Sodium, in pop?!  Grrrr!

The highlighted area in the chart shows the desirable range for sodium intake of 1,500 mg - 2,300 mg (according to Health Canada).  Obviously with sodium, the lower the better.

As you can see, I am not a paragon of good sodium consumption habits.  In fact, I was horrified to discover that my average monthly sodium consumption was well over 2,000 mg per day, and in fact, closer to 3,000 mg per day.   Sure, it's below the Canadian average, but it's also well over the recommended daily maximum of 2,300.

I was stunned to see these numbers because by and large I am eating well - - I don't eat fast food as a rule, and I avoid prepared foods (or I thought I did).  The Nerd cooks most of our meals from scratch, and we consume the recommended daily allowances of fruit and vegetables almost every day.  But sodium is in damn well nearly everything, including surprisingly high numbers in many of our recipes.

I was gratified to see that over time my average sodium consumption appears to be trending down, but it is not consistent.  See, for example, the rebound in November and February in the chart above.

But knowledge is power, and the first step is to be aware that there is a problem.  I learned a good many things by reviewing my daily sodium consumption and looking at what was driving the numbers, such as:

1. It is extremely difficult to reduce sodium consumption below 1,500 mg/day with my normal eating habits, given that sodium is in damn near everything, but it is possible to keep under 2,300 mg/day or even 2,000 mg/day, with planning.  I just need to be aware of my sodium figures just as I am with my carbs, and be more attentive to the combinations of foods that I am eating.

2. Sausages are sodium delivery capsules.  Not only street meat, but also gourmet sausage from the market, and by extrapolation, any of our Jamie Oliver recipes that feature sausage (for example, the Kinda Sausage Cassoulet or the Catherine Wheel Sausage) are comparatively high in sodium.  I need to reduce the frequency with which I consume these foods, and/or reduce the serving size.

3. Cheese is also comparatively high in sodium, especially the low fat cheeses that have had such a prominent place in my daily diet.  For example, my little Light Mini Babybel cheese that has only 50 calories has 160 mg of sodium - - that adds up quickly, especially since when was the last time you ate just one of those?  Other cheeses, like the feta in the Jamie Oliver Spinach and Feta Filo Pie, or the Light Pepper Jack Sonoma Jack soft cheese wedges are similarly high.  I need to [sniff] reduce my cheese consumption [sigh].

4. Campbell's soup (and other prepared soups) are ridiculously high in sodium.  In fairness, I am not speaking of the reduced sodium versions, but rather the normal versions.  A can of Chunky Prime Rib stew has 1,404 mg of sodium, a cup of the Trader Joe's Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper soup has 1,125 mg, and my favourite New England Clam Chowder has 1,361 mg.  These have got to go.

5. Smoked food is high in sodium.  Another heartbreaker - - the delicious smoked trout (590 mg), bacon (192 mg per slice), and smoked salmon (up to 1,132 mg) are all comparatively rich in sodium.  Obviously, the salts used in the preserving process gets absorbed into the food.

6. Prepared sandwich meat is surprisingly high in sodium.  I thought that eating a homemade sandwich, especially one made of turkey or chicken, would be good for me.  Not so much - - a normal serving of sandwich meats (actual meat, not processed meat loaf product) runs in excess of 500 mg - 950 mg.

7. Low fat/low calorie/low carb does not equal low sodium.  I was so focused on reducing my daily calories and carbs that I ignored the sodium levels in food.  As my overall food consumption has decreased and my diet has evolved to incorporate less prepared food over time, my sodium consumption has also declined - - but nowhere near as much as my calories or carb levels.  Nutrition needs to hit on multiple levels, as I discovered today.

8. Restaurant food is high in sodium.  Salt = flavour, and on days that I eat out, my sodium figures are consistently higher than days I cook for myself.  Furthermore, it's very difficult to reduce the amount of sodium in restaurant food, although it is possible to try and make healthier choices. 

So what am I going to do to try and reduce my sodium intake?

i) Read the nutrition labels, and try to choose lower sodium options when choosing between products.

ii) Look for foods with sodium levels of 5% or less of the daily recommended allowance - - these are considered to be foods that are "low in sodium".  Similarly, avoid foods that have 15% or more of the daily recommended allowance of sodium - - these are "high in sodium" foods.

iii) Where possible, purchase the "reduced sodium" versions of foods.

iv) Reduce consumption of sandwich meats and sausages - - these are high in sodium.

v) Don't add salt when cooking.  We already do this most of the time, but it's good practice - - we can always add salt at the table if required.  

This will not be something that I can fix all at once, nor is it something that I can deliver on every day - - sometimes I will just have a 4,000 mg day - - but if I am aware of sodium and make choices taking sodium into account, I can work to bring my average consumption down month by month. 


  1. I also noticed that my sodium and sugar are sky high, although I am eating the desired calories and tried to stay in my calorie allowance for the day. I am still so much focusing on my calories and trying to get it right, and although I am aware of the sodium and sugar counts, I will gradually pay attention to that. I am glad though that you brought it up. Good food for thought :). And as are amazing.

  2. Toronto dietitian Rosie Schwartz is working hard to try to convince Health Canada that this situation has to change. Our sodium standards are much less rigorous than those of other countries, including the U.S. -- which is ridiculous.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Ann! Maggie, I think what you are doing - both trying to lower your sodium and explaining it all to your followers is very important. The proposed sodium reduction bill (Bill C-460) is a Private Members bill which traditionally allows MPs to vote independently but for some reason, I think the MPs may go along party lines. We need everyone to contact their MP to urge their support of the bill!