Nothing hits the spot on a cold winter day like a delicious soup-and-sandwich combo. The fluffy white bread, the cool meat from the deli case, the steaming hot soup. It all adds up to one perfect salt bomb.
Wait. What? A salt bomb?
Yes, it’s true. This lunchtime favorite packs close to 2,000 milligrams of sodium. That tops the American Heart Association’s recommended total daily sodium intake of 1,500 milligrams. It also comes close to the maximum recommendation of 2,300 milligrams. All in one meal.
Sodium isn’t the only sneaky substance in your food. Sugar also pops up where you wouldn’t expect to find it, like salad dressing and condiments. Just a few extra grams of sugar can add a lot of extra calories. That leads to weight gain and other health issues.
“American food has a lot of salt in it and a lot of sugar,” says Elif Oker, MD, a medical director at Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “Our palettes have come to accept that as normal.”
Consider that soup-and-sandwich lunch. Here’s how it breaks down for sodium (based on averages; specific brands may vary):
- 2 slices of bread = 250 mg
- 2 ounces of deli ham = 780 mg
- 1 cup tomato soup = 960 mg
Are you surprised by those numbers? Then you’ll also be surprised to learn that 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from processed, pre-packaged and restaurant foods, according to the American Heart Association. Only a quarter comes from the saltshaker.
What’s So Bad About Sodium?
The average person does need a little bit of salt — about 500 mg, or a quarter teaspoon — for bodily functions. But too much can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease. It can also contribute to common problems like headaches, weight gain and bloating.
Dr. Oker says people with high blood pressure and other salt-sensitive conditions tend to be aware of how much salt they are eating. Most other people are not.
“One of the challenges with sodium awareness is the only people who pay attention to it are the people who are sick,” she said. “But we all need to pay attention to it.”
The Trouble with Sugar
The same holds true for sugar. Everyone needs to pay attention to it, not just those with diabetes. And you have to know all the places to look.
You would expect a lot of added sugar in a cookie (about 10 grams) or doughnut (11 grams). But you’ll also find plenty in store-bought pasta sauce (10 grams), instant oatmeal (13 grams), and barbecue sauce, ketchup and other condiments (about 3-6 grams).
These numbers quickly cut into the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day for men and 24 grams for women. These amounts do not include naturally occurring sugars like lactose (in milk) and fructose (in fruits).
It’s hard to know for sure if a product has added sugar because it has so many different forms. Words to watch out for on labels include corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup and words ending in -ose, such as dextrose and sucrose.
Most of us won’t be able to avoid all added sugar and salt. But there are ways to eat less. The first step is to be aware of how much you’re getting in all of your food and drinks. Then you can choose healthier alternatives. Try fruit when craving something sweet, or experiment with spices when you’re looking for a salty taste.
Check out more healthy eating ideas from the American Heart Association.