Living the Low-Sodium Life

Back in February…oh, how much younger and dumber we were. Both my husband and I watched with a mix of growing concern and incredulity over this new and horrible thing called “covid 19,” wondering what it might mean for our little, teeny, tiny life-sphere. We continued on with life as though nothing was wrong or could ever be wrong.

Had we known that our immediate future would consist of sprouted bread, organic “cookies,” and unsalted peanuts, my god…the sheer agony of it all!

To be fair, unsalted peanuts are pretty damn yummy. Unsalted peanut butter…well, that’s another matter.

I’m being facetious. You get that, right? I feel like me having to explain that defeats the purpose of my attempt at facetiousness, but life is goddamn weird right now and nothing is as it seems.

Anyway.

I’ve mentioned before that, back in March, my husband had a not-heart attack that turned out to be a severe anxiety attack. From the doctor visits, we also discovered that his blood pressure was sky-high, and so, we had to do something about it. (And not to dump all this on him, I’ve had high-normal blood pressure for as long as I can remember–high-blood pressure runs in my family–so maybe this whole situation had been a long time coming.) That very day we started living a low-sodium life. It has been…interesting.

His doctor didn’t offer up any specific guidelines other than “cut back on the salt,” so we turned to a few helpful online resources to figure out was exactly constituted a “low-sodium diet” beyond simply not dumping a bunch of salt into my morning grits. After plenty of looking, we decided to sorta, kinda follow the DASH diet, and specifically, the “lower sodium DASH diet,” which capped ones daily intake of sodium to 1,500 mg per day. Only then, we decided to take it a step further and see if we could cap our intake at 1,300 mg per day. We are nothing if not wild and crazy.

The first (next?) step in this journey involved us taking stock of what was already in our kitchen. Guys, guys, guys…did you know that there’s salt in pretty much e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g ever? Like, I gotta admit, I was fucking embarrassed over just how little attention I had paid to the sodium levels in the things that we had been consuming up to that point. Frankly, it’s a fucking miracle that neither of us has had serious heart problems, but to our credit, it’s not as if we were eating particularly unhealthy food all the time. It’s more that lots of our pantry staples, like canned anything, bottled sauces, and baking supplies all suddenly became pretty much off limits due to high sodium.

Canned soup – 760 mg per serving, and the damn thing serves two! I could easily eat the entire can alone without realizing that 1,520 mg of sodium is part of the deal. OMFG.

I know I probably sound super naïve; this is a testament against my own purported “smart-ness”, believe me. But still, after seven months, I remain in agony over how blind I was to not just what we were eating but what I was making as well.

Case in point, baked goods.

I love to bake. And back in March/April, it was still cool enough generally to bake. And by god, people did just that, didn’t they? What with their “quarantine bread” and all. But nope, not me. There I was reading up on how to make salt-less bread (it’s a thing, just ask Tuscany), and what in the hell I was going to do about baking powder, baking soda, eggs, and milk – all of which contain low (egg = 70 mg sodium) to very high (a teaspoon of baking soda = 1,200 mg sodium[!! and !]) levels of sodium. Compromise came in a few forms.

First off, we can’t live without eggs and milk. Maybe you can, and that’s great, but we can’t. So the option was to cut back on how much of each to use. We cut milk with water, and started using chia seed “eggs” with or in place of real eggs. Both have proven perfectly fine in most cases. (We’ve even experiment with using seltzer water in place of milk in some recipes – mixed results overall. And for anyone curious, we’ve found that nut/oat milks don’t make much difference, as they tend to contain about the same amount of sodium as regular milk. Plus, they are gross. #sorrynotsorry) As for baking soda and baking powder, salvation came in the form of substitutes that we found with the help of multiple low-/no-sodium food blogs.

And a light shined down upon them from the heavens, and all was right with the world.

These substitutes have proved absolutely invaluable in fulfilling my need to bake. Yes, yes, they are expensive, and you have to use more of each in recipes than you would with regular baking soda and/or baking powder, but the trade-off is worth it for us. And to be honest, they have actually helped curb my mild baking addiction, as every time I think about making something, I also have to think if it’s really worth using up such prime ingredients. (If the answer is but, chocolate chip cookies, then yes.)

Adding to all this is the issue of actual salt itself.

R.I.P. Chadwick Boseman. Also, Karen’s bland-ass potato salad.

The fact of the damn matter is that salt makes things taste good. As a home cook, my aim is to make food that tastes good. Ergo, I use fucking salt. But now, I use this salt:

Well, two kinds of salt, actually.

As proof that life will often come full circle when you least expect it, picking up both Accent and Morton’s “lite salt” came with some serious childhood memories. I recall quite vividly that there was a time when my mom used both these same items in her own cooking, as my dad had (and still has) high blood pressure. Basically, the “lite salt” is just what it says, a mix of what would be considered regular table salt and potassium chloride. The stuff tastes salty, and just a tad more bitter than regular salt. Accent, on the other hand, is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, an acronym that may or may not fill you with dread. While my mom used the lite salt as one would regular salt, and I do the same, except I use less of it when called for, I don’t remember how she used MSG. After conducting a bunch of my own experiments with it, I’m not sure I understand how to best use it either. While it tastes salty enough straight out of the container, that saltiness doesn’t always seem to transfer to the food I’m cooking. It works nicely enough in something like fried rice, but not so much in soup and sauces. I suspect that I’m just being very strict with it use per my own, new salt-using rules. It’s good thing that I don’t mind experimenting, and that we don’t mind eating my experiments, as well.

That sounded better in my head.

We’re talking about things like banana bread make with all sort of substitutes and MSG, salt-free homemade tortillas (which are delicious), stir-fry made without soy sauce (which sounds sacrilegious), and macaroni salad made with homemade, no-salt-added mayonnaise (recipe’s not there yet, but getting there). And the hunt for low-/no/sodium stuff in the grocery store continues, as well. That’s far more of a challenge, as I’m now one of those people who clogs up the aisle while I’m reading every last damn ingredient on a can or box of whatever. Again, #sorrynotsorry.

I’ve read the Bible, but never as a cook book.

So, after seven months of all this no-sodium bullshit, which I say with the kindest of smiles because it’s the good kind of bullshit, what have we learned? Well, for one, we don’t like eating out as much as we thought. (That’s fine now, and will be fine for our wallets and hearts later, when life goes back to normal.) Cooking more at home has provided us with plenty of interesting food choices, from picking stuff straight from our garden to eating things that we might not have before. As well, we’re making the obvious choice to eat less canned/processed/boxed foods, so many of which have enormous amounts of sodium lurking within. And, we’re being smarter about when and when not to add salt to what we’re eating. I will never make unseasoned potato salad, because my god why would anyone serve that to the people they love. I will instead make fewer and smaller batches of deliciously seasoned potato salad. Because as we’re finding, less is more when it comes to salt. And now, pretty much anything salted tastes far too salty. In fact, just recently we picked up some salted natural peanut butter, you know…the natural peanut butter that’s usually just smashed, oily peanuts that you have to stir, only this variety contained added salt, which you usually don’t find in natural peanut butter. Though the label claims it contains just a “hint” of salt, comparing it to regular peanut butter shows that it has only slightly less sodium, so it’s still salty. Too salty for what it is. Ah, well.

Yep, in the game of life, you win some, you lose some. You just can’t get so made at it that you flip the board and lose the board’s spinner, along with all the little cars and stick people. Man, you’ll be vaccuming up those suckers for years to come.

Wait, what?

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