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Tightening the Belt on a Too Highly Salted Diet

March 10, 1987|ED CRAY | An associate professor of journalism at USC, Ed Cray is facing middle age ungraciously. and

The next six months are certain to be the most tasteless of my life--literally. Having wallowed in sloth, a carefree glutton since hyperactive youth, I have grown in uncomfortable middle-age to become a figure of abdominal proportions.

That unfashionable contour and my wife's ungentle nagging have impelled me to a low-salt diet.

Not that a low-salt diet will do much in itself for me, Mr. Average Everything, but it will help. Each teaspoon of salt the human body retains is diluted in about 1 liter of retained water; that water weighs about two pounds.

Cutting the salt intake then is a way to tighten the belt around a waist once so lithesome.

But it is not so easily done. On the average we ingest about 10 grams (10,000 milligrams), or something approaching two teaspoons of salt per day. Forty percent of that is sodium, the "salt" to fear most.

Apparently I was more than average. For lunch I wolfed down Quarter Pounders with cheese and Arby's super roast beef sandwiches, both high in sodium. For supper I popped into the microwave a Hungry Man chopped beef dinner (2,030 milligrams of sodium), La Choy's sweet and sour pork (2,200 milligrams) or a Banquet veal parmigiana at, gulp, 4,210 milligrams. A bit of salt for seasoning on these was another 2,544 milligrams for every teaspoon.

Even breakfast was a salt mine. Cheerios has 330 milligrams per serving, Life--wholesome, good-for-you Life--163 milligrams per, and that winter favorite, instant oatmeal, 523 milligrams of salt in every steaming bowl.

(Those sodium figures are from the book "Barbara Kraus' 1986 Sodium Guide to Brand Names and Basic Foods," published by New American Library.)

My kitchen cupboards were veritable saltcellars. One teaspoon of Del Monte catsup splashed on that sweet and sour pork (I can't stand the flavor otherwise) contained 181 milligrams. The pricey Dijon mustard in the refrigerator has about 150 milligrams per teaspoon, French's smoky barbecue sauce about 300 per tablespoon. And so it went.

It was some comfort, then, when an announcement I made in a class flushed a student who acknowledged, with a touch of guilt, that she too was having difficulty curbing her salt intake. And Ramsey Bieber has far more imperative reason to hew to a low-salt diet than do I.

The USC sophomore, once the No. 7 oar on the women's novice crew, may be suffering from a tumor behind the parathyroid gland. That has resulted in an imbalance of calcium in her system. While doctors continue their tests, she has been placed on a low-sodium, low-calcium diet to avert the threat of kidney stones.

"It hasn't been easy," she said ruefully. "I cheat. I can't help it."

She sighed. "I'm a Doritos freak."

Doritos, like so many tempting snacks, are a no-no, the fine arts major continued.

Worse, Bieber was used to a lot of salt in her diet. "I come from a big German family and we add salt to everything. And I was especially fond of salty dishes like sauerkraut and knockwurst."

Bieber and I have discovered what nutritionists have long known. "Buying in packages, that's really where our salt comes from," Dr. George A. Bray, chief of diabetes and clinical nutrition at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, said. Perhaps a third of all salt ingested occurs naturally. The remainder is added, by the manufacturer at the factory or by the consumer at the table.

Dumped in Packaged Foods

Salt, once an essential preservative, is now apparently dumped into packaged foods largely to enhance the taste, noted Dr. David Heber, chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition at UCLA's School of Medicine and director of the Weight Management Center there. A host of other chemicals infused into packaged food secure longer shelf life; one, sodium nitrate, also contributes more than its share of sodium to the average American's diet. (Such other common preservatives and taste enhancers as sodium carbonate, sodium alginate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate and sodium citrate apparently contribute little to the sodium level, Bray said.)

"The tongue gets used to a certain level of salt," Heber added. "Salt-free soup tastes like dishwater."

Bray, considered by the American Heart Assn. as one of the nation's foremost authorities on dieting for health, agreed with his cross-town colleague. "A lot of our preference for salt is what we are used to."

The salting of our diets begins early. "Mother tastes the baby food, finds it bland, and adds salt to 'perk it up,' " Bray said. "We go right on adding salt."

Like Ramsey Bieber with her sauerkraut. And her cheddar cheese. And her catsup. She now avoids salt "by careful shopping and by not adding it at the table."

The result is that foods taste bland. "Soups without salt are disgusting," she noted.

So there is some slippage in Bieber's diet. To the irritation of her parents--both medical doctors and both researchers on the faculty at Stanford. "They come down on me more than my doctors do."

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