Several months ago I was approached by a representative of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA) about possibly writing an article for their quarterly magazine, Pathlight. Pulmonary hypertension is increased pressure in the pulmonary arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs to pick up oxygen. PH patients are routinely prescribed low sodium diets.
The Pulmonary Hypertension Association is the largest and oldest PH association in the world, providing a patient and caregiver support group network, lifesaving early diagnosis awareness and education programs, specialty care resources, and research to find ways to prevent and cure PH. It has evolved into an international community of over 16,000 pulmonary hypertension patients, caregivers, family members and healthcare professionals.
The representative suggested writing about getting started on a low sodium diet and including a recipe or two. “I think the community would really benefit from your tips…;” “...you encourage flexibility and easing into low sodium. I can imagine that many people try to eliminate salt and end up reverting back to their sodium-filled style.”
The article I submitted was a modification of my original Getting Started post and page-tab and was published in the Spring edition of Pathlight. The magazine is chock full of medical information and inspiring life stories. The article I wrote is below. If you’d like to view the online Pathlight version, click HERE.
Low Sodium Living: Getting Started
About ten years ago my husband was hospitalized and diagnosed with congestive heart failure, an irregular heartbeat, an enlarged heart, and a massive fluid buildup in his lungs. Before coming home, he was prescribed a regimen of several drugs to stabilize his condition and told to restrict his daily sodium intake.
After my husband’s diagnosis, I determined to not only cook low sodium meals for him but to also join him – whatever he ate, I would eat. I was a pretty good cook to start with, so I was confident in my ability to master good tasting low sodium fare. However I was frustrated by some of the challenges in transitioning from a "full salt" kitchen to a low sodium lifestyle. Like spending so much extra money replacing lots of "high sodium" pantry items. Taking way too much time at the store reading labels. Trying to figure out a way to keep track of which store carries which items. And, of course, dealing with the inevitable flops: new recipes that didn't taste right; experiments that were abysmal failures; or low sodium products that weren't worth buying again. Not to mention annoyance with rebellious taste buds that weren't adjusting fast enough.
There were times when both my husband and I despaired of ever making a go of this low sodium thing. It's pretty easy for a doctor to say you should eat a very low sodium diet, but it’s a very different thing to try to live it – day after day, week after week, for years upon years. But we didn't give up, and we're still alive and kicking ten years later.
I know from my own personal experience that following a low sodium diet can initially be a daunting task. You can become so bogged down calculating each tiny milligram of sodium that you run the risk of losing all your zest for life. It doesn't have to be that way! Below is my very personalized list of helpful tips for others who are just beginning the journey. Thoughts that hopefully will encourage those who are new to low sodium living. Every little bit of help makes the journey easier.
Know your target! Be sure you discuss your new low sodium diet with your healthcare provider and understand what your objectives are. Know how much sodium you should consume per day. In the beginning, it might be easier to set targets for each meal – something like 400 mg. sodium each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a 200 mg. snack. Also, know how much “wiggle room” you have to play with. Trying to lower your sodium intake just a bit to prevent hypertension is not the same as coping with congestive heart failure. There's a big difference between a low-sodium diet of 1,500 mg. sodium per day and a restricted diet of only 800 mg. sodium, so you really want to understand the numbers to begin with. Also, be sure to ask your doctor about salt substitutes. They often contain potassium chloride which can be problematic for those with diminished kidney function.
Don’t panic! Living a low sodium lifestyle is challenging but not impossible. You don’t have to be a master chef or a totally “from scratch” cook to survive. You will be able to produce and eat satisfying and delicious food.
Be patient! It will take a while to get used to the taste of lower sodium dishes, and there’s a learning curve when it comes to cooking. It will take time to become familiar with the lower sodium products available in your local grocery stores. It will also take time to transition from a “full salt” kitchen to a low sodium kitchen. Modifying favorite recipes and building up a repertoire of new recipes will take a while, and developing techniques to enhance dishes will be an ongoing learning experience.
Fight one battle at a time! Don’t try to do too much. Just concentrate on lowering your overall sodium consumption. Don’t expend energy on anything else, and don’t jump on any bandwagons – avoiding gluten, eating only whole grains, going vegetarian or vegan, eating local, avoiding carbs, buying organic and/or sustainable – the possibilities are endless. Give yourself ample time to tackle the low sodium lifestyle before worrying about any other food and dietary choices.
“Know Thyself!” The ancient Greeks got this right. You’re the only one who understands your tastes, your schedule, your cooking abilities, your finances, what’s available in grocery stores nearby, and what you’re willing to do in order to eat lower sodium. Don’t beat yourself up because you miss the taste of salt. It’s normal. Don’t feel badly if you don’t want to bake your own bread or blend your own spice mixes. What works for others may not work for you. Going low sodium is not a "one size fits all" proposition. You are the only one who can develop a lower sodium routine that fits your unique personality. You can glean ideas and inspiration from a lot of sources, but everything you do needs to satisfy you and you alone. After all, it's YOUR low sodium program.
This is one of my favorite low sodium recipes. It comes by way of my friend Ann from Thibeault’s Table. It's easy, quick, tastes great, and is super versatile. When I can't think of what to cook, I often turn to this recipe.
1 pound lean ground beef
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 small onion chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt-free chili powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika
No-Salt-Added beef broth
Sauté beef in a small amount of oil until the pink is gone. Add the onion and garlic and seasonings and continue to cook for a few minutes until onion is tender. Add one cup beef broth, cover and simmer for 1/2 hour. (The simmering results in nicely tender meat that is permeated with the wonderful seasonings.) Remove lid and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.
The meat is great in tacos, taco salads, tostadas, and burritos. Mix it with already cooked rice for a quick bell pepper stuffing or use it to top a Mexican-style pizza, omelet, or baked potato.