“But I Never Salt Food At the Table…”

Low Carbs, Low Fat, Raw Food, Master Cleanse, HCG, Cabbage Soup – Americans seem eager to try on most trendy diets.

But four words strike fear into their hearts: “cut out the salt.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American over the age of 2 consumes 3,500 mg of sodium daily – and that’s without the salt shaker on the table. Unfortunately, 2,400 mg would more than do for those in good health, with 1,500 mg being recommended as adequate.

Salt is a taste we acquire early and one we nurture with processed foods. Commercial bread is an unexpected culprit, and one glass of tomato juice might contain 900 mg, while even the smallest fast-food cheeseburger weighs in at just under 800 mg.

Most of us know that salt is unfriendly to those with heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and liver ailments. Less known is its role in certain cancers or its effect on afflictions of younger patients, such as those with Lupus and Meniere’s.

Christy Ellingsworth knows all too well about the misery of Meniere’s.

“In 2004, I was diagnosed with an inner-ear disorder called Meniere’s disease,” she says. “Meniere’s is a chronic illness that affects the auditory and vestibular systems of the body.  Its symptoms include hearing loss, tinnitus, aural pressure, and vertigo, with vertigo being perhaps the most debilitating when chasing after young kids.  There is no known cure, but many are able to alleviate symptoms of the disease by adopting a strict low-sodium diet.  I am one of them.”

So successful was Ellingsworth’s low-sodium experiment that she began The Daily Dish (the dailydish.us) “to help others, like me, who are struggling with the enormity of this diet.” Low-sodium recipes, salt-free cooking, and food photos can be found on the website.

“It is hard to change the way you eat overnight, particularly when you’re dragging others with you.”

Her health insurance wouldn’t cover consultation with a dietician, and she had given up her job to stay home with her children. “What I did have was time.  I also had the determination to do whatever it would take to heal myself.  Diets can change lives.  I’ve seen this firsthand.”

“It is hard to change the way you eat overnight, particularly when you’re dragging others with you,” something she also knows firsthand.  “If you are the one who is sick, it’s an added challenge.”

Last March, Ellingsworth began work on the upcoming Everything DASH Diet Cookbook. “DASH is an acronym for ‘Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.’ The DASH diet is a healthful, balanced eating plan, low in sodium, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Meats, nuts, beans, and legumes are all permitted, although red meat, added sugars and added fats should be eaten in moderation. It’s promoted by many large health organizations, including the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the Mayo Clinic.”

The DASH diet is seen as an ideal eating plan for all Americans and has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and promote heart health and wellness in general. It may also reduce the risk of cancer, osteoporosis, and diabetes. A low-sodium DASH diet is often prescribed for those with serious medical conditions, as it can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension and more. “In my case, it helps alleviate the symptoms of Meniere’s disease. As with many sensible eating plans, it has the added bonus of promoting weight loss and weight maintenance.”

For some patients, more extreme steps are needed.

Donald A. Gazzaniga, the founder of megaheart.com, is a congestive heart failure (CHF) patient. In 1997, he was told that he had less than a year to live. Few options other than transplants were available at the time.

“Dr. Michael Fowler at Stanford’s Heart Transplant Clinic encouraged me to try a no-salt lifestyle (less than 500 mg/day). I was amazed when I learned how much sodium I had been consuming – without adding my own.”

Not surprisingly, Gazzaniga learned the truth of Dr. Fowler’s warning: such an extreme diet is hard to stick with. But he was determined. Having cooked most of his life, he developed some tempting recipes (including a stellar Tuscan bread, reflecting Tuscany’s historic rebellion against a staggering salt tax).

A year later, he was “walking, working and doing things I wasn’t supposed to be able to do.” Megaheart.com was born – the first salt-free recipe site on the web – followed by his No Salt, Lowest Sodium cookbooks.

What about kids? Ellingsworth feeds hers the DASH-style diet. “They may not have to deal with health crises in the future – it’s the greatest gift I can give them.”

How do you flavor food at home? Check those websites, and use fresh, local ingredients, fresh herbs, spices, citrus and “heat.” Penzey’s Salt-free Spices (penzeys.com) makes mega flavor and Bragg’s Aminos (available at most local groceries) steps in for soy sauce.

And if you’re too busy to cook? Personal chefs cater to stock the freezer needs, and most restaurants will oblige dietary needs with enough advanced notice.

Sparing the sodium can mean sparing a life, but it’s not a bad idea for the fittest among us.