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THE QUESTION

I heard the daily sodium limit has been increased. Does this mean I don't have to be concerned about how much salt I eat?

THE ANSWER

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Earlier this month Hypertension Canada announced a proposed recommendation to decrease daily sodium intake to 2,000 milligrams – an increase from the current 1,500-milligram limit – in an effort to lower blood pressure. This advice is aimed at people who have high-normal blood pressure or hypertension. If accepted by the Hypertension Canada's recommendations task force, this new limit will become effective in January.

Blood pressure is a measure of the pressure blood against the walls of your arteries, measured in milligrams of mercury (mm Hg). The top number represents the pressure when your heart contracts and pushes blood out and the bottom number is the lowest pressure when the heart relaxes between beats. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg. A blood pressure consistently above 140/90 mm Hg is considered high, and if you have diabetes, 130/80 mm Hg is high. If your blood pressure is between 130/85 mm Hg and 139/89 mm Hg, you have high-normal blood pressure.

The new sodium limit doesn't mean you should bring out the salt shaker. The average Canadian consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day. In other words, the new recommendation means cutting sodium intake by one-third.

To some, increasing the daily sodium limit from 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams seems counter-productive. Yet the new recommendation was based on a careful review of scientific studies demonstrating improvements in blood pressure by achieving the to 2,000-milligram target.

What's more, the soon-to-be outdated sodium limit of 1,500 milligrams is pretty tough to achieve in our modern world of processed foods. If you are a regular patron of chain restaurants, consuming 1,500 milligrams of sodium is an unrealistic endeavour. Consider that Wendy's Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad has 1,990 milligrams of sodium. A large order of Tim Horton's chili packs in 1,660 milligrams. Even Starbuck's Egg White and Feta Breakfast Wrap delivers nearly half the daily limit (830 milligrams).

All Canadians need to be concerned about their sodium intake, whether or not their blood pressure is elevated. Curbing your sodium intake requires eating fewer processed foods and more whole foods that are naturally low in sodium and packed with nutrients such as potassium and magnesium that guard against high blood pressure. When you do eat packaged foods – or restaurant meals – practice the following tips.

Read the label. Use sodium counts to choose brands lower in sodium. But pay attention to the serving size: the amount of sodium stated on a label will underestimate your intake if you consume more than the serving size indicated. Sodium is also listed as a percentage of a Daily Value (% DV). A food that has a DV of 5 per cent or less is considered low in sodium. A food that has a DV of 15 per cent or greater is high in sodium.

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Opt for lower sodium products. When possible, choose sodium-reduced or no added salt brands of vegetable juice, soups and canned vegetables. Rinse canned vegetables and beans to remove some of the added salt before using them.

Eat home-prepared meals more often. Thanks to salty ingredients and hefty portion sizes, restaurant meals can be shockingly high in sodium. Make your own pasta sauces, chilis, soups and salad dressings. It takes extra time, but if you're serious about cutting back on sodium it's time well spent.

Order wisely. When dining out, be salt savvy. Menu terms that indicate higher sodium include pickled, marinated, smoked, barbequed, teriyaki, soy sauce, broth, miso, gravy, bacon, and of course, salted. Order dressings, gravies and condiments on the side and use only a little.

Limit deli meats. Ham, sausage, salami and smoked turkey are high in sodium. When preparing dinner, bake or grill extra chicken, turkey breast or roast beef for low sodium sandwich fillings.

Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct www.lesliebeck.com

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