March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Want your family to have healthy hearts? Start with the family dinner table. "Not only do most adults consume too much sodium, most kids do as well," says Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "That can increase their risk for high blood pressure which can eventually lead to heart disease, stroke and kidney disease." That's cause for concern since the average child consumes more than twice the sodium they need each day.
Opt for Spices
In the kitchen, think out of the box. Opt for spices instead of added salt. When you're cooking, reach for low-sodium seasonings such as fresh lemon or lime juice, fresh herbs or salt-free herb blends and vinegar to boost the flavor of your favorite foods.
Surprisingly, the salt we add during cooking and at the table only accounts for about 10 percent of our day's sodium. The main offenders are packaged and processed foods which supply more than 75 percent of the sodium we eat.
"From a very early age children's taste buds adapt to what they're used to eating," says Thayer. "So the more salt they're accustomed to, the more they'll seek for food to taste flavorful." By limiting salt early on you can help shape your child's taste buds and prevent the likelihood that he or she will sprout a "salt tooth."
Read Nutrition Labels
You can trim the sodium in your family's diet by carefully reading the nutrition facts panel when buying canned, frozen and packaged foods. Comparing brands and labels can also go a long way as the amount of sodium in foods can vary from brand to brand by hundreds of milligrams.
Look for Foods Low in Sodium
It also helps to focus on whole, unprocessed foods which are naturally low in sodium. "Over the years our diets have become unbalanced with too much sodium and too little potassium," says Thayer. Eating more vegetables and fruit can restore that balance. Produce contains little sodium, yet it's rich in potassium, a mineral which balances blood pressure. However, few of us get the potassium we require. Children under the age of 13 need roughly 3,000 to 4,500 milligrams of potassium a day while teens and adults require 4,700 milligrams. Top sources include vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and spinach and fruits such as bananas, oranges and raisins. Eating at least 2 cups of fruits and 2.5 cups of vegetables each day can help your family get the potassium they need while also taking the place of sodium-packed processed foods on their plates.