Heart health month: A dietary check-in

By Jenni Wolf

February is National Heart Health Month, making it a good time to check in on your eating patterns to help make sure you’re keeping your ticker ticking!

While there are several nutrients that play a role in heart health, sodium is a key one and one that is widely prevalent in our food supply, making it a good place to start.

While our bodies need sodium (commonly known as salt) to function, too much of it can be harmful and can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure.

High blood pressure puts stress on the heart, causing it to work extra hard to pump blood around the body. The American Heart Association* recommends we consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day and work towards an even lower consumption of 1,500 mg per day.

The average American consumes 3,400 mg per day, so while starting with the more realistic goal of 2,300 mg makes sense, it can still feel overwhelming!

Most of the sodium we consume doesn’t actually come from the salt shaker on the table but from packaged or prepared foods we eat often. So, working to reduce your consumption of these foods can greatly help reduce overall sodium intake.

While I believe it’s nearly impossible for someone to cook every meal from scratch or eat every meal at home, I believe there is balance to be had without demanding too much time, energy and effort.

Read on for four smart tips to help keep your sodium in check and your heart happier and healthier:

• Notice–notice how often you eat out at a restaurant, grab take-out or order delivery each week. Take that number and set a goal to reduce it by one. This will help to reduce the amount of high-sodium foods you consume, but still leave room and opportunity to enjoy your favorite restaurant or deli meals.

• Scan the shelves–when shopping for packaged goods, check to see if the product you are buying comes in a low, reduced or no-sodium added option.

   You can always add salt-to-taste at home while preparing the food, and chances are, you’ll probably add less salt than the original variety would have contained.

• Limit processed meats–save the cold cuts, sausage and canned tuna for the times you need a quick meal and incorporate more fresh meats like ground meat and cuts of chicken, pork and beef. Processed meats are often cured and have a significant amount of sodium, so balancing these with some fresh cuts that have less, is ideal.

• Stick with it–I think we would all agree that the more we do something the more we get used to it, right?

Many people find the taste of their food less appealing when choosing to incorporate some lower-sodium options into their routines. Remind yourself that most of us are consuming more sodium than we need and that it is what we are used to.

It will take time for your tastebuds to adjust and for you to start looking for, and enjoying, other flavors in foods besides salt.

Practicing some simple mindfulness techniques. For example, naming the sensations you experience while eating can be helpful in noticing other flavors and textures of a food and can enhance the taste and experience of a meal, without needing to add extra salt.

Sources: *American Heart Association, heart.org; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, nhlbi.nih.gov

Jenni Wolf, a registered dietitian, writes about food and nutrition for the Bugle.

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