November 02, 2011

By: Mary Ihla

Two years ago, my doctor warned me: "You won't live to see your grandchildren grow up if you don't develop a healthier lifestyle." I listened. 

I've now lost more than half the weight I had gained over the previous 25 years, lowered my cholesterol, and no longer need insulin injections or the use of a CPAP machine at night. However, one problem still persisted -- hypertension. Despite eating healthier and moving more, I couldn't manage to lower my blood pressure to an acceptable level.

"Cut the salt," my doctor ordered, and set my daily allowance at 1,500mg. I quickly discovered this was going to be a challenge. 

I'd been faithfully tracking my daily intake of calories, carbohydrates, cholesterol, and fat, but hadn't paid much attention to sodium. What a shock to discover I was consistently consuming nearly twice my doctor's recommendation!

So where was all that sodium coming from? As I analyzed my habits, I realized I was automatically grabbing the salt shaker, both during cooking and before I had even tasted the food. And, this was sodium I wasn't even tracking! So, the first thing I did was switch from a shaker to a grinder. This simple gesture not only made me mindful of when I salt the food I cook and eat, but also reduces the amount of salt I use. 

But, I still wasn't even close to my daily limit of sodium. Next, I began looking closely at nutrition labels and was surprised to learn "low-fat" often means "high-sodium." How was I going to continue losing weight while keeping my sodium levels low? 

When I started the Healthy Habits: Eat Less Salt program, I was already aware of the high amount of sodium in my diet and thought I knew where it was coming from. However, the article "Hidden Sodium in Healthy Foods" was an eye-opener. I was dismayed to discover some of my favorite foods in my diet plan contained much more salt than I imagined. 

Another stumbling block was my craving for salty snacks, a habit that had been with me since childhood. In my quest to lose weight, I substituted low-fat popcorn for the sunflower seeds and pistachios I usually enjoyed and started snacking on dill pickles when the munchies overtook me. Of course, these all contributed to my high-sodium intake.

At that point, reducing the salt in my diet while still losing weight seemed a daunting task. But, over the last month, I've adapted the Healthy Habits tips and tricks to fit my lifestyle. I've gradually trained my tastebuds, and my cravings for salty foods have diminished considerably. These days I rarely get the urge to grab the salt shaker, either when I'm cooking or eating. 

I'm happy to report that since I started the Healthy Habits program, I've reached my goal to eat less salt, and for the last few weeks have even managed to stay below my 1,500mg daily limit. Plus, I've lost another 14 pounds! 

Although nearly everything I've learned in this program has been beneficial, there are four "healthy habits" that have become a part of my daily life. 

1.Use only large-crystal salt. I can buy boxes of kosher salt for use in recipes where I measure it out and sea salt in grinders to use while I'm cooking. Both will allow me to add only the absolute minimum while still imparting sufficient flavor. 

2.Grow my own herbs. I can plant a variety of herbs in clay pots on my patio in the summer and in an indoor herb garden the rest of the year. It's much cheaper than buying fresh herbs from the grocery store, and I don't have to worry about them going bad in the refrigerator.

3.Make it myself. I can bake bread in my bread maker, can tomatoes, and freeze vegetables from my garden and the farmers' market, make oatmeal and soups in my crockpot, create my own biscuit mix, and put together rubs, marinades, and dressings, all with minimal sodium content. The bonus: They all taste much better than the store-bought products.

4.Shop for low-sodium products. I can purchase non-perishables in quantity when they're on special and ask my grocer to stock specific items with low sodium or no salt added. If there's not a lower-salt option, I can find an alternative product or eliminate it completely from my diet. 

I'm confident the changes I've made, with the help of Cooking Light's Healthy Habits, will result in a lower blood pressure reading at my next appointment. Then, I can listen to my doctor say, "Great job!"

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