New government guidelines for a healthy diet are urging us to eat less salt. For many people, the recommended limit is 2300 milligrams a day. If you eat three meals a day, that's a little more than 700 mg per meal. A plain bagel from Au Bon Pain has 660 mg of sodium. Add 1 ounce of cream cheese (85 mg), and you're one-third through your daily intake.
The limit is even lower if you fall into one of these at-risk categories:
• Older than 51
• African American
• Have high blood pressure
• Have diabetes
• Have chronic kidney disease.
For folks in those groups, the new guidelines recommend 1,500 mg or less. Kiss your fast-food French fries goodbye, America. About half the population falls into one of those categories.
The United States Department of Agriculture, which put out the guidelines, says you should take these new recommendations to heart -- literally. Too much salt can cause serious problems for your cardiovascular system.
Unfortunately, using the salt shaker less is not enough to get you down to the new recommended levels. We get most of our sodium from processed foods and restaurant meals. Here's how to reduce your intake.
Cut back on processed foods.
By one estimate, 75 percent of the sodium in the typical diet comes from processed foods. Manufacturers use it as a preservative, to accentuate desirable flavors in food , and to disguise less pleasant ones.
Where possible, choose reduced-sodium versions of processed food. Or make your food from scratch; that way you can control added salt.
Be careful about canned vegetables.
Salt, like sugar can pop up in unexpected places. For example, there's nearly 400 mg of sodium in a single serving of canned cut green beans. The low sodium version has 200 mg.
That's why I usually start with fresh or frozen vegetables. They typically have no sodium.
Watch the condiments and dressings.
What we top our foods with can really affect our sodium levels. Last year Heinz reformulated its ketchup for the first time in 40 years , cutting sodium from 190 mg to 160 mg per tablespoon.
While that doesn't seem like much salt (at least compared to the fast food fries people dip in ketchup), a few tablespoons each week can add up. Dressings can have even more sodium. The Garden Fresh Salad with house dressing at Olive Garden has 1,990 mg. Even a "healthy" brand like Newman's Own Lighten Up Caesar Dressing has 420 mg for a two-tablespoon serving.
Eat out less.
A few months ago, the fast food restaurant chain Wendy's introduced new "natural" fries with sea salt. Don't be fooled into thinking that this means they have less sodium. In fact, a medium order of the new fries has 150mg more sodium than their previous version.
Wendy's isn't alone. Most fast food restaurants over-salt their food, as do many other chain restaurants and ethnic eateries.
The easiest way to cut this salt out is to eat at home. If you do go out, educate yourself about the salt content at chain restaurants. (To find out which meals have the most sodium, check out this list from the Center for Science in the Public Interest .) And ask your server about meals that can be made with less sodium.
Learn the language.
Lean what the sodium labels mean on processed food. "Reduced salt," for example, doesn't necessarily mean low sodium; it means a product has 25 percent less salt than the regular product. Here's what other labels mean:
Sodium free or no sodium: < 5 mg
Very low sodium: 35 mg or less
Low sodium: 140 mg or less
Eat smaller portions.
Of course, the easiest way to reduce your salt intake is to eat less food, which is in keeping with the spirit of the new guidelines. Knowing how much salt is in food is helpful -- but eating less will achieve the same goal.