It's hard for Cassandra Mathieu to describe her mother's cooking without mentioning the salt shaker.
"I remember my mother used to cook with seasoning salt, garlic salt and every kind of salt you can imagine," she said recently. "We grew up on salt."
Cassandra grew up fixing food the same way, adding generous amounts of salt to dishes she prepared and to her food at the table. At age 42, she discovered her blood pressure was extremely high -- 167 over 101 -- a level so far above the normal reading of 120 over 80 that she was going to need two medications to control it.
As her doctor handed her the prescriptions for the blood pressure pills, he also gave her some advice: stop the salt.
Her doctor was advising her to lower her salt intake because it contains sodium, an element that raises blood pressure and can damage the blood vessels. Left untreated, high blood pressure often leads to stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, and a host of other problems. People often become more sensitive to the effects of sodium as they get older. Many African-Americans are especially sensitive to sodium's effects, as are many people who are obese, who have kidney disease or who have blood sugar problems.
Our bodies only need about 180 milligrams of sodium daily, but the average American consumes nearly 20 times that -- about 3,400 milligrams. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that people with high blood pressure, everyone older than 40, and African-Americans take in no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily, or no more than two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt. (More than two out of three U.S. adults fall into that category). For everyone else, they recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams daily.
These recommendations are tough to follow, especially since most packaged foods contain a lot of sodium -- and most of us are used to eating lots of it beginning in childhood. But contrary to what you might think, low sodium foods can be tasty and inexpensive. Below is some advice on how to reduce salt from Cassandra, who now works as a nutrition educator for the University of Florida's Extension Service, as well as several dieticians.
A similar version of this article originally ran on the New America Media website.