Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Please Don't Pass the Salt: My family's diet

 Typical snack fare in our home (this is actually my almost-stocked snack box for my nursing station - all things I can eat with one hand):  dried cranberries and raw almonds; unsweetened dried mango; mixed nuts

Given the number of (usually unnecessarily guilty) comments I get from other parents about what my child is snacking on, I guess it's really apparent that our diet is slightly out of the American ordinary.

I also think that the way we eat has been a bit of the impetus - or at least inspiration - for many of our other crunchy endeavors.

So, what's our story?  We eat low sodium.  It translates almost to "eating clean," which is a term I have only recently become familiar with.  Low sodium is a very healthy way to eat, and it's incredibly overwhelming to start with.  I have been learning to eat this way for almost 13 years.

We've done it for specific medical reasons (I have chronic kidney disease, if you're curious), but I've also become fairly passionate about it because sodium consumption is a contributing factor to hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease, which my mother died of at the very young age of 45.

Allow me to put this in perspective, as my mother is not the rarity you might initially think.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of U.S. deaths in 2006 were from heart disease.  It is the leading cause of death for both men and women.

At first, you might think "but I don't salt my food, so I'm sure I'm not eating too much sodium."  Go look at a few labels in your pantry and consider that the 2005 USDA recommendation is less than 2300mg of sodium per day, though less than 1500mg per day is actually the recommendation for the majority of the American population.  The recommendation in Canada is less than 1500mg of sodium per day for most adults (the recommendation decreases with age).

And sodium has recently been in the news as the Institute of Medicine, when asked by Congress to evaluate ways to reduce Americans' sodium intake, recommended that the FDA regulate the food industry!

In any case, dividing the larger USDA recommendation across three meals, that's less than 800mg of sodium per meal.  That's not including snacks - which are often a HUGE source of sodium.

And sweets aren't even always safe.  Sweets containing nuts/peanut butter and baked goods are more likely than others to contain an appreciable amount of sodium.  For example, I was recently shocked to find out how much sodium is in a Starbucks muffin.  500mg?!?!?!  (That would be half my daily allowance while pregnant...).

And bread is another surprising source of sodium!

So, if everything in your pantry seems to doom you to all that salt... where in the world do you start???

My own first baby steps

For the first several years I ate low sodium, I was eating in a dining hall.  All I could do was cut out the obvious stuff - I minimized cheese (using only grated so it was a bit more spread out), switched from salad dressing to oil and vinegar, and stopped eating cold cuts.  I only drank water, milk, or juice - no soda.  One of my aunts (my mother had already passed away) stocked me with low-sodium chili and gave me low-sodium bouillon cubes to replace the seasoning packet in Ramen noodles for a late-night snack (I can't recommend this.  It was, frankly, completely disgusting.).  She also gave me a popcorn popper and a jug of popcorn kernels (plain popcorn.  Yum?  No.).

My diet was boring, and I often gave in and just ate whatever I could get my hands on - especially because I usually didn't have access to a proper kitchen, or have the time to go do grocery shopping or find recipes.

I was supposed to stay under a gram a day at that point.  I'm sure I didn't.  But at least I was eating much lower sodium, and my awareness was on the rise.

Our current diet really began to take shape when I was pregnant with Bean.  It's amazing what parents will do for the health and safety of their babies.  When I'm pregnant, we stay under a gram a day - that is VERY low.  We hardly eat out, and usually we eat at our co-op where I can get a huge salad and control my sodium intake pretty well as long as I am careful about the dressing.  I think I have a high-sodium meal about once a month.

Eating low sodium translates to cooking almost entirely from scratch.  You name it, we've at least contemplated making it ourselves!  We've had a few failed experiments and we have several works in progress.

We also simply don't keep things around that I'm not allowed to eat - I have pretty poor self-control!  And when we're out at playgroups with shared snacks, I don't limit Bean.  He eats endless numbers of Goldfish and pretzels and crackers.  I just have to limit myself, which I do with silly rules like only eating the broken pretzels from Bean's plate (if he'll let me...).

So, I'm not obsessive about eating healthy, and I don't stress with a day here and there where we eat crap.  Heck, we had Cold Stone Creamery for dinner one night not too long ago (I blame The Thing).  And The Thing ate an entire bag of gummy bears today.  Sneaky Thing...

But my dietary restrictions have translated into us really knowing what we're eating, and into lots of creative and delicious dishes.  The Beast discovered cooking as a creative outlet while I was on strict bedrest for 2 months while pregnant with Bean, and he now has a great sense of things that go together, and how to prepare them.

 Pizza margherita made by The Beast.  Super yum!

The Replacements
So, with this background on our food priorities, I will start sharing some recipes and tips.  I'm not even sure where to start (perhaps how some folks are feeling as they start to cook from scratch, eh?).   I find it helpful to think of things as replacements.

I am constantly asking myself "how do I replace food/cleaner/habit/disposable item x with something healthier/easier/less expensive/that I don't have to remember to buy?"

Perhaps you will accept the opening picture and its caption as my first replacement suggestion?  Dried fruit and nuts are largely our replacement for packaged snacks - both sweet and savory.  We obviously eat unsalted nuts, and I don't find myself wanting them salted.  In fact, salted nuts are often just too much - all I can taste is the salt!  And my mouth ends up so cottony.  I don't enjoy the taste or the mouth feel except in very small quantities.  By the way, we do eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables (with homemade dips/dressings), but they don't always travel well to playgroups and are pretty nasty when I inevitably forget them in my purse or the diaper bag...

Since I can't eat saltines, I kept a bag of raw almonds in the car and one in my purse through my first trimester.  I'm one whose morning sickness is more like I-haven't-eaten-in-the-last-hour sickness, so having a satisfying snack available that I could just shove in my mouth without any preparation was a necessity!  I ate apples and yogurt through my morning sickness with Bean, but those don't keep so well in the car and Bean and I are always on the go (when I'm not on bedrest.  *sigh*).

All of the above, except the almonds, came out of bulk bins at our co-op.  The almonds are cheaper by the pound in a bag, so we buy them that way.  Cheaper than packaged snack foods?  Not exactly.  But it is all actually more filling than candy bars or potato chips, and the health pay-off is pretty huge.  I've found the key to be having something I can reach my hand into and shove in my mouth - just like potato chips.  Having to prepare something makes it a lot less appealing when I've wandered into the kitchen hungry.

And Bean eats all of this, too.  He will eat peanuts and cranberries by huge handfuls and loves almonds.  And dried mango?  He's thrown tantrums for more dried mango...

Anyhow, it may be awhile before I can regularly post recipes - sorry!  This baby will debut annnnny day now, and I will hopefully be back to cooking somewhat regularly by Thanksgiving (I've been on restricted activity/bedrest since the beginning of August).  I'm at least hoping to get back to making yogurt and yogurt cheese, and do some dehydrating within the next month...and I'd really like to take another stab at ketchup!

So, as I'm getting back on my feet I will have more food prep and cooking posts.  For now, you'll have to settle for the stuff I basically shovel out of bulk bins!  At least I'm starting out with the stuff that is less time-intensive and therefore a bit easier to make a change to, right?

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