6 First Steps for a Low-Sodium Diet

Sodium Savvy

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I hate to brag, but for almost a decade, I’ve eaten ridiculously well. Like, five-star level deliciousness. At home, abroad, and with some of the most amazing chefs at the helm. All without touching a grain of salt. So if you think that keeping a low-sodium diet means being doomed to days of steamed chicken breast, eaten alone, while watching Golden Girls reruns, think again, my friend.

If you're new to low-sodium eating and are wondering where to begin, let me share a few first steps and positive encouragements that will help launch you into satisfying, bountiful low-sodium cooking.

Why I Eat Almost No Sodium

After being diagnosed with Lupus-related kidney failure in 2004, I took on a low-sodium diet with determination, willing to do anything to stay healthy and strong.

But as someone who likes to eat great food (and feed others), I was equally resolute to make this new regimen more than a prescription. More than palatable. It had to be as good as anything I ate before losing the salt. Or better.

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My Low-So Journey

Which brings me to years of hosting dinner parties, countless memorable meals, and yes, even bloody Marys and bacon. Not to mention ten years off of dialysis and the transplant list. With the right attitude, a little effort, and a dash of creativity, anything is possible on a low-sodium diet (see: bacon).

And really, “low-so” food is just “slow” food with the letters mixed around. It’s about using fresh ingredients, ditching processed products, and enjoying the process of making food.

So I promise, if you lose salt, you can actually gain more than you could have imagined. Like a greater understanding of flavor, more personal relationships with those that feed you, and, you know, the opportunity to take your health care into your own two hands. That whole thing.

Do I have your attention and your mouth watering, now? Then let’s dig in with these top tips on how to live an awesome low-sodium life.

6 First Steps for Your Own Savvy Low-Sodium Lifestyle

1. Develop a deeper understanding of where sodium is found.

Before you do anything, you need to get schooled on sodium — like, how much sodium your body needs or needs to eliminate (because everybody and every body is different); where sodium hides (hello! it occurs naturally in foods as well as processed ingredients); where it doesn’t hide (jam is my jam); and why high-sodium products and salt helps make food taste so darn good. That way you’ll be better prepared to avoid high-sodium traps, mimic salt in cooking, and maintain a balanced and healthy diet.

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2. Start with the kitchen.

Speaking of kitchens, this needs to be your happy place. Because while your feather comforter feels like heaven, it can’t make you a roast chicken, now can it? So before you go shopping for salt-free spices, oils, herbs, and other flavor booster that will make your low-sodium food sing, spend a little time (and yes, a bit of money) on gathering colorful backsplashes, time-cutting utensils, non-chemical cleaners, and something to blast your favorite songs while you cook so that food prep feels easy and enjoyable.

If you love being in your kitchen, you won’t mind watching the pot boil.

3. Be daring in improvisation.

To all you goodie two-shoes and straight laces, it’s time to release your inner rebel. When it comes to recipes, defy instructions. Be daring with ingredient swaps. Use broccoli instead of breadcrumbs or a sliced bell pepper in place of bread for eggs in a hole. And discover that, when you get a little “bad” in the kitchen, your food will start to taste really good.

Most of the low-sodium rules focus on what you cannot do: no convenience foods, no eating out, no sharing meals, no tasty sauces, no fun. Which is why people don’t want to give it a try. But that’s why you need to pull a James Dean (or get all Gaga) and break the rules. Rewrite them for yourself, focusing on what you can do instead.

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4. Don’t remove. Replace.

As for the food itself, remember you cannot just remove the salt. You have to replace it. That’s where spices, fresh herbs, a burst of citrus, and unusual ingredients come in. And remember to explore unfamiliar flavors, weird-looking produce, interesting textures, and cuisines from around the world. Because the more you can surprise yourself and your palate, the less you’ll search for the salt.

5. Look beyond the rack.

Not all flavor comes from bottles or jars. Actually, all five culinary tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and yes, salty — occur naturally in foods. Ingredients like celery, beets, carrots, beef, and shellfish all contain higher amounts of sodium. Don’t avoid them, use them to your cooking advantage (ahem, bloody Marys)! And remember, time on a grill or a roast in the oven will add smokiness and depth to dishes, too. Even adding unexpected textural elements — like roasted chickpeas or toasted coconut — will prove palate-pleasing as well.

6. Cheat, steal, and borrow from other diets.

These days, even people without health needs like to dabble in vegan, Paleo, and gluten-free food. That’s because these diets, like low-sodium, use creativity to overcome limitations. Or in other words, they’ve added a whole new set of tricks to the culinary playbook. Look no further than kale chips, cauliflower “cheese,” and banana “ice cream” for proof.

So when there’s a salty ingredient you need to replace, take (or steal) ideas from other cuisines, cultures, and yes, other special diets. Don’t be afraid to cheat a little and experiment with food imitators. And then of course, channel your inner James Dean (or Lady Gaga) and give it a try.

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Sodium Savvy

(Image credits: Jessica Goldman Foung)

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