A few months ago I ended up in the hospital with a serious health condition. Things are more or less under control now, but I found out the hard way that I need to be careful of my sodium intake.
Upon discharge from the hospital, I was told that there were no constraints on my diet as long as I ate a healthy variety of foods. This was true in most ways. But on a five-day camping trip during which I ate more salt than usual, I discovered that I really do need to be careful when it comes to salt. I swelled up like a balloon, adding 5 or 6 pounds of water weight in about 4 days, which made me very uncomfortable due to the bloat and grotesquely swollen feet and ankles, plus edema in my lower legs.
For most Americans, the salt shaker is the least of worries when it comes to excess sodium. That's because most of our salt is found in the foods we buy from supermarket shelves, deli counters, and fast food places. Take a look at the food labels on processed foods, or look up some of your favorite fast foods or processed meats on the Internet. You'll quickly get a grasp of just how much salt you're getting even from otherwise healthy foods (for example, a 12-ounce can of V-8 juice contains 920 mg of salt!). While the most commonly seen figure for safe salt intake is 2300 mg per day, a lot of us should be aiming for more like 1500 mg per day. That can be a challenge.
I'm one of those fortunate people who has always required less salt than most people for my food to taste good. It's common, when I serve meals to guests, for me to say "You'll probably want to add some salt," because I've learned that my salt sensor seems to be more sensitive than most people's. I'm also lucky that I don't eat fast foods (maybe some McDonald's fries once in a blue moon) or, for the most part, buy processed foods or cured meats. Like just about everybody else, though, I do occasionally like salty snacks, crave a salami sandwich or a BLT, and buy items like canned tomatoes that have quite a bit of salt added.
On my vacation I ate a lot of salty foods in a short time: roasted salted peanuts, salt and vinegar chips, summer sausage, hot dogs, dill pickles, breakfast sausage, V-8 juice . . . on and on. Boy, did it ever take a toll. It took me several days to get rid of the water I retained, even with taking an extra diuretic (I've been prescribed two Lasix per day as it is). I keep track of my weight daily because of my health condition, so seeing it spike by several pounds was a little alarming. I immediately thought of salt and began my research on the Internet.
Since then I've been experimenting with low-sodium versions of foods I often purchase. I find that low-sodium tomato juice and V-8 taste just fine to me. At first I added a little bit of Mrs. Dash's salt-free blend, but found I didn't really need it. I'm eating low-sodium Triscuits and saltines with unsalted tops (I use saltines mostly as carriers of peanut butter or thinly sliced cheese, anyway, which has enough salt in it). We've experimented with salt-free blends and "lite" salt, which has 50% less sodium in it, the rest being potassium, and it works great on corn on the cob. Snacks that seem salty because the salt is on the surface often turn out to be not that bad--they taste really salty because the salt is right there on top. Still, I've switched to veggie straws and unsalted roasted sunflower seeds for when I get the munchies. And I doubt that I'll ever eat another reuben! Low-sodium bacon is just fine; we'd bought some not even knowing it was low-sodium and had been eating it as BLTs before I even noticed the packaging.
Soda pop has quite a bit of sodium in a drink which is already bad for you, but luckily I don't drink pop. I like carbonated water and unsweetened green or black iced tea. (Drinking plenty of fluids is important in avoiding water retention, counter-intuitive though that may seem.)
I realize that it's been easier for me to go low-sodium because most of my cooking is from scratch, so I have control over what goes into the food. Plus, I don't use salt to make up for the lack of flavor or cover the off-taste of convenience foods. I can freeze portions of homemade soup rather than depend on the incredibly salt-laden canned soups. Although it requires some commitment and prioritizing, doing your own cooking is a significant factor in lowering sodium intake.
And it's not like I can never eat another dill pickle. What I do, instead, is keep track of what I'm eating--it becomes very easy to do this mentally--and not eat Y after I've had X because I can't afford the salt. It all comes down to making sensible choices, whether snacking at home or ordering lunch in a restaurant. I don't feel deprived in any way because I can always make the decision about what to eat or even whether I want to risk the water retention, which, while uncomfortable, isn't going to kill me. Salt intake may be have a much more significant effect for some people than mere water retention, though.
Recently I found out that too much sugar can also lead to water retention--again, thanks to an unpleasant experience--but that's another story.